Unearthing Greater Meaning in Modern Life
Modern life is easy and complicated; soul trekking is challenging and simple. Modern life provides most of us with the conveniences that support basic life (water, food, shelter), but leaves us the freedom to be entrapped by the contradictory conflation of wants and needs in advanced economies, pursuing things that ultimately leave us unfulfilled and wanting more. In contrast, the physical challenges of trekking toward deeper meaning are challenging—water, food, and shelter always being primary on the mind, yet this simplification reveals a freedom that connects to soul and a deeper meaning in life. The ribbon of trail takes away choice, displaces civilization mind, and replaces it with the joy and freedom of self-forgetting.
I hang out under a highway underpass, waiting for the blistering mid-day heat to pass. I eat a pre-prepared micro-waved hamburger from a gas station food mart. Felicia is tender, gentile, and interested in my trekking as she grabs for condiments. She has seen many of my kind before and describes how we sojourners are always fascinating to talk to. There are many along our path who are interested in our lives, there is something compelling about what we are doing that draws certain people toward us. Others, busy and consumed with modern life, have not time or patience to deal with our apparent assault on normal life. I drink a Pepsi after over 100 miles on the trail; the bolt of cold sugar feels like I’m drinking cocaine.
Civilization mind atrophies usually after a day or two on the trail. The first days the mind is bothered, congested, complicated. During these first days, my hiking is typically forced and I’m prone to pitfalls and stumbles. But soon, and often without my awareness, the discursive mind is no match for the consistent mindfulness and self-presence required by trekking. The mind is led by the body and assumes the steady and simple rhythm of one step forward. The intricate inner conversations, the analyzing, the monkey mind that oozes without end become overcome and sidelined by the sensitivity and spontaneity required of trekking. In wilderness, Belden Lane (2015, 228) suggests in Backpacking with the Saints, there is the “defeat of the grasping ego”, an experience both unsettling and healing. Civilization mind, aware of its irrelevance amidst the simplicity of natural grandeur, seems to give up without even a fight. It has met its match and retires. Relief………. One feels the simplicity of moving through the world without being attached, or haplotes (John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent).
When thinking on the trail, do I think less (lower thought density) or do I think the same number of thoughts but in a more focused, concentrated way (lower thought variation, focused on body, food, water, and shelter)? The days after I get back from long-distance trekking, there is a timelessness associated with memories of the trek. Is this related to me thinking less on the trail or in a more focused way? The timelessness seems associated with the simplicity of the experience.
Trekking is likely the only activity I have found that calms my excessively organizing mind. In normal life, I am a checklist person, constantly listing things to do in my mind with the hope that once I achieve them my mind can rest. I formulate intricate patterns of problems to address, often with the sense that if all the complex pieces don’t line up just right that all will fall down and I will be an embarrassing failure. My mind is filled with a complex array of obligations and anxieties that I somehow think all go together, each one dependent on the other. I do this without end despite learning through the years that the chase to complete the checklist is futile, that once something comes off the checklist that other need-to-do’s come in and repopulate the checklist. When trekking, things are different. The main things taking up my mind—the basics, water, food, body welfare, and about 4pm each day, thoughts related to sheltering for the night—are foundational and large, taking up major chunks of my mental space. This has a calming effect, displacing possibilities for all the intricate problem-solving and detailed checklist-monitoring of my life in modern civilization. The sense of reverent immediacy when trekking obliterates the ability and willingness to think in intricate abstract ways, it overwhelms my well-worn interpretations of life. It strips me of my interior mental baggage. More than anything else I have experienced, hiking in the wilderness is total and all-encompassing.
My checklist on the trail is of a fundamentally different nature–simple and a source of gratitude, not grasping. During a few early morning segments when my mind is not yet aligned with the magnificence of my surroundings, I review three items—how is my body feeling (soreness, blisters, and the like), do I have sufficient water for the day’s trek ahead, and how is my food supply for the day? That is it. No more. When those things check out okay (which they almost always do), I am done with checking in internally and I feel a deep sense of gratitude, freedom, and security. I look around me and clearly see the magnificence. It would be wonderful if my checklist in modern life was so short and basic. I can only get this grounding and stripping away of the obsessive mental nonessentials on the trail.
Long-distance trekkers hang out in the shadowy interstices of small way-station towns to rest and gather in comraderie during ”zero” (no hiking) afternoons or zero days. These interstices of modern urban life—unused parking lots under a shade-producing set of trees, alleyways, well-manicured public spaces designed ironically to discourage loitering, near underused storefronts, under highway underpasses—are places not of efficient function to contemporary life. They are leftover places, residual places, the cracks people look away because they are in busy pursuit of goods or do not glance at due to unfamiliarity or unease. Yet, for us, these places are those of respite, human connection, and shared joy. We are one step up from homelessness. People see us but their glances are not long and are unsure. In our challenge their life, they unsee us, or not fully see us, dismissal part of their consideration. Our lives are ones of challenging physical and psychological simplicity. At times, past trekkers seek us out, they know where to find us and recognize our disheveled, worn out grey looks. They want to talk to us about the trail and they describe their own past exploits and their longing love for the trail.
It is another windy, tent-flapping night at mile 193. As night falls and I cannot sleep, I am troubled and bothered. At one point, a creeping oncoming sense of terror comes upon me, the kind that makes me feel like waking up my campsite mate in tent nearby and say, “help me, you need to get me out of here.” I guess this is what people describe as symptoms of a panic attack, yet I have no place to go. I feel trapped in the darkness, my breathing is rapid, feelings of motality set in. I practice deep and calm breathing, knowing that I won’t out of sheer stubbornness act on my instincts and that there really is no way out of this existential dread. When I wake to near-freezing and hands-numbing wind in the morning, the sheer and difficult acts of breaking camp and reloading my backpack thankfully consume me fully, diverting me from memories of the nighttime terror. I know though as I start the day’s hike that these experiences leave scars of mental wear and tear that accompany the physical pains of walking the typical fifteen miles of long-distance hiking.
Soul trekking creates a deeper grounded humility, to the extent that at times it feels like a type of anxiety-producing nihilism that doubts the existence of real meaning in life. Mortality, a black hole, barrenness. The physical and psychic challenges of the trail are consuming and leave a sense that all the meanings we create and maintain in modern life are artificial playthings to fill up life and sedate us until we die. Where and how do we find meaning in comfortable modern life? A sense of the absence of meaning in life can certainly be terrifying, but there is also a bare essentialism to it—a rigorous honesty—that anchors and illuminates the spirit. When we go into this mental space, we don’t succumb and we live to see another day—more clearly and stripped of all the superfluous accoutrements and complications of modern life. Life becomes more fulfilled not because of the meeting of needs, but through the realization that modern needs and wants are unnecessary and harmful to the soul path.
I laugh on the trail at times when I consider what I would be doing back home on this day. It is funny because I cannot think of how I would be consuming time amidst the easy convenience of modern life. I think of certain things—drinking coffee from my Keurig, opening a refrigerator to reach for food, watching a Netflix series, gazing out from my patio to the nearby bay—and it all seems so easy and contrived. My thoughts about my daily doings in modern life cannot hold for long—it all seems so farcically contrived and disconnected from the realness of the trail.
Years ago, my experience with nearly dying on the trail was a pleasant, reassuring one. On the last day of a five-day loop trek, I look at the water cache I left on day one that would be essential for the hot ascent on day five. The water is there on the backside of a large rock off the travel, secure in its red pouch. I am in disbelief as it strikes me immediately that I secured water for one person, not enough for me and my hiking partner. I admonish myself readily for such a stupid mistake and I know we are in trouble. The hot sun is already parching us and we have a mighty climb out of the canyon ahead of us. I try to justify that all will be okay, but the reality sinks in. The hours go by, the sun cooks, and our water supply is running low. It will be gone soon. As we take in the last drops, my head aches and my body tightens. My hiking partner becomes more and more aware of our situation. Tension, heat, rocky ascent, dry mouth, dizziness. We approach a stubborn drop-off in the trail, one for which we had to lower our backpacks by rope on day one, and we are too exhausted to negotiate the ascent with backpacks on. We leave them by the side of the trail, an admission of the severity of the situation, creeping desperation, and possible defeat. We scramble up the drop-off, without backpacks feeling anxious and lessened. More ascent, more heat, it seems to be getting even hotter in the early afternoon hours. My throat starts to dry, making it difficult to swallow. I tell my partner to go ahead and try to do the last 4 miles and inform her that I always leave water in my car at the trailhead. She goes on her way. I am alone on the trail, staggering and kicking rocks as I stumble forward. I cannot swallow, my body weakens, and I slump on a large rock off the trail, unable to move. Time passes, but there is a timelessness. I lie down on the trail, no sun, things are becoming black. I cannot move. My body is shutting down. My mind is no longer working, the body is taking over and it is shutting down. Things go black, I cannot process what this means. My mind is not working enough even to be anxious or scared, body in control and shutting things down. I try to swallow. Blackness. As I lose consciousness, I feel a growing and comforting coolness envelop me as I lie on the trail. At some point in the blackness (I don’t know when), I hear my mother’s voice. She died five years before. She is talking to me in a matter-of-fact sort of way about something that seems to me to mundane and irrelevant. The voice is calm and assuring in its easy conversational tone. I don’t understand why she is not anxious or concerned in any way with my predicament. Is she even aware of it? My mind was not able to process what was going on; my body was fully in charge. When I first become aware, a voice inside me gently tells me, “You can now walk ahead.” I arise from the dust of the trail and methodically start walking. I meet my partner about half way between the trailhead and where I blacked out. She and I experience the first joy and relief we have felt in hours. We are going to make it. The following day, I spend most of the day retrieving our backpacks from the trail. It is a tiring day, but my body and mind are rejuvenated. That day ends with a full meal at nearby restaurant. We sit in utter gratefulness. I reflect on what John Muir once said after a threatening experience on the trail—“We little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us.”
Where does the mind go when water, food, and shelter are overwhelming all other needs on the trail? It seems to no longer go in other places of higher-level, analytical thinking. Does the mind give up sophistical thinking or do survival needs make all else feel extraneous, artificial, irrelevant? The mind becomes simple during the challenges of long-distance trekking. I reflect back on the start of the covid19 pandemic March 2020 and remember amidst our focus on basic needs (groceries, toilet paper) that many spoke of the surprising relief of a more simple life. Life became challenging in its basics but also became simpler in day-to-day existence. Quite a few people even relished this forced simplicity. Trekking long-distance creates this similar perception.
Trekking is often solo, but when fellow travelers meet up at watering holes or in small towns there is a shared joy and exuberance, a common hilarity about the whole experience and what and who we have encountered on the trail. Krissie, French Fry, Heaves, Ziggy, Zeb and Bryer, Kendra, JT, Marley, Jay and Myra, Tiger, Topless, Detour, Giggles, Oats, Espresso, Yak and Stitch, Mason, Pathos, Rhapsody, Pepperjack, Monk, Steph, Radio, Kyle, Ponyboy. The world of human busyness and strife has not noticed that we have gone AWOL. There is delight in this, proof that we are free to walk another path if we choose. We travel light, pay attention, and exercise wonder about a natural environment that provides, cannot be explained, and which we love.
I’m coming to a peaceful acceptance that at mile 244 I will end this segment of the journey. It is nice to dream but also wonderful to have reasonable expectation. I will be back on the trail again soon, I know. I take time out to have an early afternoon lunch of freeze-dried beef stroganoff (my favorite). The last two miles of this segment I wanted to be a celebratory easy descent, yet the trail offers up instead a difficult ascent and a seemingly endless meander. I feel no disappointment and feel fulfilled as I kiss the ground and hug the last trail signpost of this segment. I spend a day and a half with good friends in town, a nice buffer between time on the trail and re-immersion back into modern life. I know it will not be easy, being back in the empty meaning-making of modern life. I smile because I know the next trail segment awaits. I will be ready for the solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness of the trail. I also do not deny the possibilities of having other dark, anxious nights of the soul, knowing that this is part of the trek toward deeper meaning in my life. A baring, a ripping off, a revealing, an illuminating.
As I rest amidst the conveniences of modern life in between long-distance trekking segments, I am restless. Part of me mentally aches to be back on the trail, part of me is glad for the break. Yet, I am restless. As 4pm approaches, I think that at this time I would be contemplating the number of miles I would like to complete by day’s end and the likely tentsites in the miles ahead. Instead, I am filling a cup of coffee from my Keurig, relaxing, and reading two books, one a fantasy fiction to put my mind in creative space, the other a book about the spirituality of the backpacking experience. My mind wanders into some programming of food resupply for the next segment, but I know it is too early to get into the details of that. I feel a restlessness being back in civilized life, with its manicured lawns, well cared-for children, and multi-layered organization. When trekking, I feel little of this restlessness. Rather, there is patience and acceptance.
2 thoughts on “DEPTH TREKKING”
This was a brilliant series of realizations, Scott. A complexity, dappled with simplicity and a confirmation of your place amongst it all. I am envious of what you have done, of how you felt, of where you went (places both physical and emotional that the rest of the world misses seeing regularly), but also hesitant to think about how I would react to the solitude, at least for as long as you did. I love peace and quiet and seek it out at every juncture – introversion helps with the comfort of that decision. Perhaps one day I’ll walk into the wilderness and see where life leads me. Afterall, we are an inherent part of that wilderness, we just don’t know it yet!
Glad you’re safe and well, even if a little restless! Remember, patience and acceptance both await around the next corner for your enlightened companionship!
Hi Scott …..
I like your essay a lot, though your description of thirst and blackout brought back memories of a time I was in a similar situation – more miles to go and very low on water. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Your 244 miles completed is a few more than the length of the JMT, though I think the JMT passes are more numerous and higher than those you traveled.
It’s true – the sound of your own footsteps become your mantra on the trail. One of my most memorable backpacks was with my brother and my son, Bryan. Bryan, though not a backpacker, went with the old man just to be kind – then he drifted into that reverie that only long days on the trail provide. He got it – the challenge, the simplified needs, the aesthetics of the mountains – and it seemed to change his life and our relationship in wonderful ways. Have you trekked with your son? If not, I highly suggest it.
I regard the wilderness as a place filled with a level of spirituality I cannot reach in Irvine, with all its powerful distractions and noise. That something as concrete as granite rocks has the power to elevate what is ethereal seems impossible, incongruous. And yet the mountains have become my church. That’s not to say that they can entirely replace the community of IUCC. 😁
Thanks for that thoughtful essay, Scott.