I love plans. And I love when all the work I have put into something unfolds perfectly in front of me. I plan and organize things well beforehand so that I can enjoy the experience and not have to worry about details or be surprised by anything.
So far, my entire life seems to be one big lesson in learning to let go of my grip on these plans and the PCT was no exception.
As I prepared for my thru hike on the PCT, I had spreadsheets, to do lists, labels, and books to read. The basement in my house was a designated storage and preparation zone for my gear and food. I had a food packing party so all my resupply boxes were ready to roll and contained everything I would need. I had the details laid out from getting to the trailhead to arriving in Canada. The organization of it all made my heart happy and I could breath easy as I set off on the adventure!
But . . . From day one my hike did not go as planned.
I got to the southern terminus the morning of April 27 with my friends Rachel, Jonathan, and Crystal. Jonathan was hiking the first three days with me and Crystal was joining me for the first three to four weeks. We took pictures, wrote in the trail journal, and put on our backpacks. We were ready to roll!
As we stood at the monument I looked around and realized I didn’t know where the trail was. I was so prepared and just assumed the trail would be easy to find at the start, right? Everyone was looking at me to start hiking and I said, “I don’t know where to go!” After some hysterical laughter, we took a couple minutes to look around, eventually finding the trail (which, by the way, is not right at the monument).
The hike began.
The morning of day two brought another unforeseen change to the plan. My friend, Crystal, who was hiking with me for the first few weeks, has some food allergies that can be really hard on her body. As we woke up that morning, Crystal was sick and, from experience, we knew it would take awhile before she felt better. We were about 5 miles from a town so we at least needed to get there.
When we arrived in town the decision was made for Crystal to leave the trail. Jonathan and I waited with her until a friend could drive out from San Diego and pick her up. By early evening, Jonathan and I were headed back to the trail while Crystal drove away from the PCT.
This was a big adjustment for me. Mentally, I was prepared to have someone with me as I learned the thru hiking life and rhythm–a partner to make decisions with and make camp with each night so I wasn’t sleeping alone. Now I had one more day before Jonathan left and I would be alone. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it did affect the next few weeks of plans Crystal and I had made. Plus, I was really sad to see her go. I had to make a mental shift, take a few deep breaths, and open myself up to the reality of trail life.
This was just the beginning of my lesson in flexibility on the trail. These lessons came in many different ways: Two surprise snowstorms in the desert delayed my journey. Store and post office hours in small towns are limited and meant waiting for businesses to open. Hitchhiking was always on someone else’s time and their willingness to pick me up on the side of the road. Wildfires closed the trail in more than one area, which means I have a couple sections of trail left unfinished. A calf strain in southern Oregon slowed my pace and mileage for a few days. I left town stops a couple of times forgetting to purchase things I needed.
Whether it’s with big dreams like the PCT or normal daily tasks, life changes in ways I can’t predict. I get blind-sided. I get tired of having to adjust when things shift and change without any warning.
As I journeyed through the uncertainties, joys, difficulties, and highlights of the PCT and life in general, I have became more and more aware that the only thing I have control of is me and how I respond to situations as life happens.
I have journals from the PCT full of what I call “Lessons From the Trail.” These things even have their own journal hashtag: #trailwisdom. As I hiked, processed, and learned new things daily, it was usually accompanied in my head with this hashtag. One of the most consistent and relevant lessons for me was what I started to call “the art of flexibility.”
I started to think of flexibility as an art form on the trail as I realized the refinement that was taking place in me as I came up against different roadblocks (or perhaps “trailblocks” is a better term?). There are no hard, fast rules in learning to be flexible; each situation is different. For some people it comes naturally but for me flexibility is something I have to embrace and work on. Similar to how my 13-year old niece can sketch incredible pictures and I can still only draw stick figures as an adult . . . We are all uniquely created!
As I have become more aware of my reactions to things and let go of control, I have learned to get creative and dial in on tangible things that help me keep perspective. For example, I practice deep breathing and step away from situations which helps me think and not say the first thing that comes to mind (which I have a tendency to do and it can get me into trouble).
The most helpful question I am learning to ask in the moment is, “In the grand scheme of the world, how important is this?” I don’t say this to minimize issues I’m experiencing but to put it in perspective. It may still be something that needs to be figured out rather immediately but I find that I am kinder to people around me and have a more gentle and calm demeanor as I work through the problem. This question also helps me to maintain a good attitude and practice gratitude.
During situations that require my flexibility or interfere with my plans, I have become aware that my reaction is to find someone or something to blame. Often the person I blame ends up being me. I should have known better, I should have researched this more, if I just would have thought through every possible scenario maybe I could have prevented this. Apparently, I expect myself to know the future! I am learning to quickly recognize when I am out to place blame and have to remind myself to offer grace to others and myself.
Over my four months on the trail, I was so excited about the transformation I was seeing in myself, especially in my ability to be flexible and adapt as needed. With all the uncertainties that came on the trail, I decided I could either fill my time with blame and stress, frustration and pride or I could live life in the present moment seeking to graciously greet the surprises I encountered.
As I got off trail and headed home I wasn’t expecting to be tested in this area so much and so soon . . .
In September, as I was adjusting back to the life of beds, houses, cars, and multiple clothing options, the first thing to hit was my dad’s cancer diagnoses. This isn’t what anyone ever expects is coming, and instantly you are living in a world of uncertainty. In the following two months it seemed that each week something happened that tested and pushed the flexibility I had learned on the trail. My oven broke, my car was broken into, my brand new computer and tons of personal information were stolen meaning updating all my accounts and initiating an identity theft alert, my car broke down twice and was towed twice, the computer to replace the stolen computer didn’t work so I had to replace the replacement, my phone was stolen, the borrowed phone to replace the stolen one stopped working . . . Just to name a few things.
It was constant and hard. By the time my phone was stolen, I remember laughing and saying, “Of course this is happening!” On the positive side I have become an expert in navigating customer service phone calls, filing Portland Police Bureau reports, and the “Find my Mac” feature on my computer and phone. If anyone ever needs help in these areas let me know!
Besides those very useful life skills I acquired, there was another bright spot in all that happened this past fall. I noticed my demeanor and attitude in each situation. I felt my resiliency and strength. I moved forward and adapted as a new challenge came my way each day. My perspective was changed as I compared the inconveniences of a stolen computer with my dad’s cancer diagnosis. And I realized I was functioning in these situations with grace and, yes, flexibility. I was responding differently than I would have pre-PCT. This “lesson from the trail” had sunk in deeply. What a life-giving thing to recognize growth and transformation in ourselves!
There are so many good things that come from my personality; the Type A, planner and achiever in me gets things done. There are times when my stubbornness can be super helpful in situations. I’m not trying to get rid of these good things but with every strength there is a shadow side, as well, that can cause problems in my relationships, work, spirituality, etc. And these are the things, like loosening my grip on my plans, that tend to continually come back around for me to work on. Instead of fighting it, I want to live my life embracing the work . . . Some days this happens with a better attitude and less heels dug in than other days!
Maybe flexibility isn’t hard for you. Maybe it’s something else that you notice affects how you live in the world and interact with others. Whatever it is I want you to know that the hard work of embracing growth areas has been worth it. This coming from someone who resists and sometimes has to get to the end of her rope before that embracing happens. The give and take, the letting go, the compromise, choosing others before myself . . . This is when the good life happens. If only I could remember this more quickly in each situation!
May you know the struggle and joy of whatever “art” it is you feel drawn to refine and may you experience the freedom it brings.