Friday, November 20, 2015

Why I have not been blogging recently

I have received a lot of mails from people wondering why I have not been blogging recently. And do not worry: I have not been ill. I have not given up hiking. And I have not married and settled down. The reason for my inactivity is quite different: I have been writing a book about my hiking experiences!

I have just now finished the manuscript and the book will be published by Malik in April 2016. You can already pre-order it on Amazon. There will be an ebook as well. But alas for my Englisch speaking readers the book will be in German.

What will the book be about?

At first glance it is a book about the Triple Crown, about the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail. I will tell you funny stories, moving stories and scary stories about my hiking experiences. But it is not only an entertaining adventure book. I will tell you more about the psychological and philosophical aspects of long distance hiking. I will describe how a successful business woman became a ceaseless long distance hiker, cyclist and paddler. And how this outdoor life has changed my personality, my values and my life style.

I hope you will enjoy it!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Wild" - Or how hiking the PCT is not like

I have now watched the movie "Wild" twice. There is no accounting for taste - and therefore I don't want to say it is a good or a bad movie. There have been long and heated discussions in the outdoor community about Cheryl's ridiculously heavy backpack, about her perceived lack of "Leave no trace" ethics and about too much "drama" or "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll" in an outdoor movie. Not much more to be said about these topics.

But there is one topic in the movie that has been wildly exploited in the media reviews - without much response from the outddoor community: the gender issue.

Cheryl's role as a sexually harrassed female is a recurring theme in the book and movie and most female critics dwell on this subject in their reviews. Best example is this review in the Washington Post:

"Every time Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) meets up with a man — or a group of men — you can see her calculating if he will hurt her and, if so, how much and with what. Sometimes she’s right, sometimes she’s wrong."

This review captures Cheryl's attitude very well: Whenever she meets a man on the trail (and there are hardly any women) she gets this deer-in-the-headlights look and nearly gets a panic attack because, of course, all men on the trail are just out there to hit on her - from fellow hikers, to trail angels and park rangers. Not to forget a group of hunters who are portayed as nearly raping her.

And personally I am very much surprised that no one in the outdoor community has stood up and said that this is just not the reality on the trail. I have hiked not only the entire PCT (which is much more than Cheryl did) but the entire Triple Crown as a female. And honestly, Cheryl's experiences do not resemble in the least what I have seen out there hiking. I have never felt sexually harrassed or threatened on the trail and I think the movie "Wild" casts a bad - and unfair - light on the trail in this respect.

Let's talk about the different groups of "aggressors" and start with fellow male hikers:

Cheryl meets her first fellow hiker when he is skinny dipping in a river and of course she is immediately scared by a naked male. First of all let me tell you that the whole scene is highly improbable because most Americans are so puritan that they would never swim naked next to the trail. When hiking the Triple Crown it was usually me, the European female, who would get naked whereas my male American fellow hikers would only get fully dressed into the water.....

I have also very rarely seen that a male hiker is hitting on a female one - for various reasons. The first one is plain simple and pragmatic: After hiking 20+ miles every single day for months on end you have different things on your mind than chasing tail - you are just too plain tired and exhausted. Secondly there is a very strong social control on the trail. Thruhikers have not much to do while hiking so gossipping is a favourite passtime. Word of any pick up attempt gone wrong will spread along the trail like a wild fire - and ruin this hiker's reputation.

The third reason is the main and most important one: the trail is a great equalizer. It does not matter any more if you are male or female, old or young, rich or poor. Hikers treat each other like equals - and usually as asexual beings. First of all you are a fellow thruhiker - being male or female is of secondary importance. Of course there is trail romance (and I have had my fair share of it as well), but the first encounter with a male on the trail ususally feels like between two fellow thruhikers and not between a a man and a woman - although this situation might develop later....

Pretty much the same goes for other people a thruhiker meets on the trail like rangers or trail angels. A trail angel who hits on a female thruhiker would not be a trail angel for much longer because of the strong social control in the well connected thruhiking community.

I do understand Cheryl's feelings towards the hunters though. Especially for me as a European hiker who is not used to see many armed people in public the sight of hunters armed to the teeth was frightening in the beginning. Especially my first encounters with camouflaged bow hunters - again something I had not seen before in Europe where bow hunting is forbidden - scared the shit out of me. But again I have always been treated respectfully by them and eventually I have realised that they pursue their hobby in the outdoors just as I pursue mine - with no hidden agenda.

And now to Cheryl's behaviour - which I found a bit unusual. Fellow thruhikers gave her the trail name "Queen of the PCT". Unfortunately Cheryl did not seem to get the irony of that trail name that reflects a bit of her behaviour on the trail. She is constantly playing off her feminity in order to get what she wants. She plays the "dumb helpless blond" by fluttering her eyelashes. In one scene she is even wearing sexy satin lingerie - and every real thruhiker wonders where she has gotten it from. Is she even carrying a wonderbra in her monster backpack? Or has she asked a friend to send it to her on the trail as an indispensable weapon in her struggle with men?

Again this kind of female behaviour is not what you see often on the trail. Female thruhikers are as smelly and dirty as male ones and usually act the same when asking for help. Your feminity might be an advantage when hitching into town but other than that women on the trail are not regarding their gender as a trump card in order to get help from other people. And I have never ever seen a female thruhiker carrying satin lingerie in her backpack.....

Bottom line: You cannot debate Cheryl's fears and anxieties. If she is afraid of every man she meets on the trail that is her business and I am not to judge her behaviour. But it should be made clear that her paranoid behaviour is unfounded. Sexual harassment is not much of an issue on the PCT nor on any other long distance hiking trail I have hiked. Yes, it might occur but it is much less likely to happen on a trail than in normal life. In this respect a female is much safer  hiking a trail than walking around a city. I wish so much that more women would get out of this perceived "general victimhood". Think more about what great things you can do and achieve and less about what bad things can potentially happen to you. Be careful, but not fearful.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How long-distance hiking will change your personality

When I started my outdoor “career” seven years ago I had had no idea how this new life style would change my personality. 32,000 km on foot (and a similar number on my bicycle and kayak) later I have become a different person. There are many different aspects to this transformation but three angles (and stages) stick out:

 (When reading this keep in mind that hiking in this context can be substituted with cycling or paddling. I only use the word hiking because it is my main outdoor occupation and it is easier to read this way.) 

With all my worldly possessions...
Detachment from material possessions: The first step in the transformation is the realisation how little
material possessions you really need. As a long-distance hiker you will be even more extreme in this reduction to the minimum because a low pack weight is crucial for the success of a long hike. You carry all your wordly possessions in a tiny backpack that weighs around 5 kg plus some food and water. Only a few weeks into a hike it will dawn on you that this is all you really need: some kind of shelter to stay dry, some kind of clothes and sleeping gear to stay warm, food to eat and water to drink. Nothing else. No house, no car, no mortgage.

Life is simple. Your needs are simple and can be satisfied with precious little. Anything above this level becomes total luxury and can be a source of ecstasy: sleeping in a bed with clean sheets, taking a hot shower, eating a real meal. As your „happiness threshold“ becomes lower and lower you feel happier and happier. And these sources of happiness are very palpable, very direct: an unexpected chocolate bar given to by a day hiker, the sun eventually coming out after a week of rain, a shower after hiking for days in dirt and heat. You realise that a rise in salary will never give you this direct satisfaction.

Happiness is a chocolate resupply package
Your atttitude towards money changes: Money becomes just a means in order to solve problems – among several other means. And it is not always the optimal solution: Money does not get you up or down a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Money does not bring you water in a desert. Money can't cure a stress fracture. These realisations alone will already make it sort of difficult to return to the normal rat race. Money has lost its importance as a motivator. And most things you can buy with money will lose their attraction as well. But the longer you live outdoors the more radical the transformation will be because soon you reach the next phase:

Detachment from personal relations: The first steps in this direction are usually happening totally unexpectedly. You have been gone from the normal world for half a year and come back a different person. Not all of your all friends will accept that. They cannot cope with your new values. They feel deserted. You will loose friends, maybe even partners. If you insist on leaving again you will loose more friends. You will realise that for many people friendship has a lot to do with physical presence. A friend has to be there when you need him or her. People want to go for a coffee or a drink with their friends. You are not there because you are hiking? Bad luck – another friend gone.

Finishing the PCT
When hiking the big American trails or European pilgrimage routes this loss can first easily be compensated: You will make new friends in the trail community. You will bond with like minded hikers. The trail community becomes your new family. But even in this stage you realise that it is you who has to walk all these miles and hike up those mountains. And everybody in the hiker community is driven by the same desire: to reach the goal, to hike from Mexico to Canada or to reach Santiago. If you cannot keep up they will move on and leave you behind.

Once you leave these big trails and hike in wilderness areas or create your own routes you will be alone. Alone – with yourself. Often I hike for days or even weeks on end without talking to a person – except maybe the cashier in a village store. Nobody will touch you and you will not even receive a handshake. You are your own and only company. You better like yourself or you will be miserable. If you are a repeat offender and continue hiking year after year you should be well aware of the fact that you reduce your chances of finding a lifetime partner dramatically. Very few people will be willing to come along with you – or patiently wait at home until you return. And as for the chance of founding a family – forget it.

Finishing the CDT
But once you are “weaned off” normal social contacts you appreciate the few contacts you have all the more. Meeting trail angels or couchsurfing hosts becomes a highly anticipated experience. And no words can describe the bond you develop with a fellow hiker waiting out a fierce snow storm under a rickety tent or sharing your last morsel of food. There is no better way to get to know a person with all his or her shortcomings than on a long hike. Long-distance hikers are fiercely independent people but when they bond these friendships are for life.

I have travelled alone for most of my outdoor career and the few times I have had a companion usually turned into a disaster. Still it took me many years to accept the fact that I am best off alone – and be happy with this situation. I am not missing a hiking partner any more. On the contrary: After such a long time alone I am afraid I am so set in my way that I probably could not deal with a partner any more.

No possibility of withdrawal: This topic has two aspects and both are equally difficult to deal with on the long run. Like most long-distance hikers I have given up a permanent home and for seven years now I have technically been homeless. Whenever I go back “home” to Germany I have to look for a new temporary place where to stay – and it always feels like walking a tightrope. I arrive with no idea where to stay and have to find something really quickly because I don't want to push my friends' patience to the limit while staying on their couch. I cannot just quickly go “home” for a couple of days or weeks between trips because there is no home for me any more. I just have a storage unit and a mailing address. Whenever I leave my last temporary home, usually a flat share, I know that I have to be on the move for months or a year. If I get sick and have to take a longer rest during that time I have a problem.

Cowboy camping on the CDT
Unfortunately the situation on the trail is similar. My home is my tent. I am almost always in public space and between me and the outer world is just a mere half milimetre of silnylon tent fabric. No door to close behind me. No walls to hide behind. My tent offers protection from the elements and from uninvited views but it is a fragile shelter. I have spent many nerve wrecking nights in storms when I had to cling on to my tent for dear life. And a tent is not really the best shelter against animal and human predators. Even if there was a hotel or hostel wherever I am hiking financial restrictions would keep me from staying there every day. Hotel stays are restricted to a weekly rest day.

Resting on the PCT
Still I need a place where to find physical and mental rest after a day on the trail. If you don't get proper rest it will ruin your hike. Therefore the possibility to withdraw is essential. The only way out is to withdraw into yourself – something that needs a lot of practice, especially when the conditions are bad. It is no problem to relax in a tent when it is warm and dry but a totally different story when you are shivering with cold after a long day of hiking in the rain. It took me many years of practice and experimenting to find a suitable tent and sleeping system setup that keeps me comfortable in all conditions. But it took me even longer to be able to withdraw into myself and find the mental peace and quiet there that you need for a refreshing rest.

Is it worth it? 

Almost levitating with happiness
Reading the above you will probably get the impression that this outdoor life is austere and full of hardships.
Why are people doing it – and even enjoying it? What do I think after seven years living in a tent? Was it worth it? The answer is a definite “yes”. Although the above mentioned deprivations sound like crazy hardships they are actually totally mind freeing. You free yourself from a lot of restrictions that our modern society has imposed on you and go back to the very basics. Hiking has made me a very happy person because I realise every day how little I need to be happy. Although the process to get to this insight has been long and hard I am very glad I made it. It has made me not only a happy but also an independent person.

Other observations: 

The longer I hike the more I cherish the time and free intellectual capacity to think and deliberate. You might wonder about what? Whatever comes across my mind. I listen to a lot of audiobooks during the day and love to think through what I have just “read”. But any other intellectual input is welcome: I am interested in the history and culture of whatever country I am currently in. I get a lot of input from couchsurfing hosts or whoever I meet on the trail. I enjoy the luxury to think about the great philosophical questions while most of my contemporaries waste their intellectual capacities with thinking about mortgages and pension schemes....

When I started hiking I was drawn to spectacular landscapes and wildernesses. Like everybody else I thought the wilder and the more spectacular the environment is the more of a positive impactit will have on me. Now seven years later I have learnt that even the most breathtaking scenery can become boring. After hiking the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide, the Appalachians and the Pyrenees I realised that mountains look pretty much the same everywhere......I now prefer “unique” ecosystems to spectacular scenery. But generally speaking I do not choose a trail or destination any more by how great the scenery is. As long as I am out in nature I pretty much don't mind where I hike.