Over the past year and a half, I spent nine months living under a tarp in the wilderness. Each morning, I stuffed my belongings into my backpack—cheese, cookies, sleeping bag, headlamp, raincoat—then walked until dark. I crossed California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. It was about 5,000 miles total at 25 miles a day. I traversed steep, icy slopes using crampons, got lost in grassy swamps, buried my poop while mosquitoes swarmed, and survived many other uncomfortable situations that would impress or horrify you.
Why did I do it? To avoid making a decision.
I didn't know what career to pursue, where to live, and most of all, I was feeling uninspired with my options. Like many graduates in the arts, in the years after college I struggled to find stable, enjoyable work in a creative field. I interned (twice), freelanced, worked at a precarious start-up, then experimented with a series of erratic service jobs while making art on the side. I lived in urban (Minneapolis and New York) and rural areas (Upstate NY and Maine), but nothing stuck. And although graduate school was appealing, I was deterred by possible debt. In a search for clarity, I bought a backpack and a plane ticket, and I headed West.
It may seem counterproductive or pointless to withdraw to the wilderness to solve real life problems, but I am not the first. Unless you've been living in the woods, you've probably heard of Wild, Cheryl Strayed's bestselling book about backpacking to overcome heroin addiction. Before Strayed, of course, Buddhists retreated into deserts and caves to achieve enlightenment. Artists and writers have always found inspiration from forays into forests and canyons. Troubled teens go to the wilderness to recover something of their former selves.
Like so many before me, I went backpacking to clarify my future. The Continental Divide Trail would be my job counselor.
The trail starts in the middle of the desert, among dusty rattlesnakes and thorny plants. It passes wind mills and cow carcasses and ghost towns. There is no natural water for the first hundred miles, and I wondered how explorers and illegal immigrants and ranchers survived. I worried about going in the wrong direction, running out of water, and stepping on snakes.
But even as the desert transitioned to jagged, snow-covered peaks then softened into the sage-covered plains of the Great Basin, I never worried about careers. I wasn't suddenly inspired to become a lawyer or nurse or even a wilderness trip leader. The farther I walked, the less I cared about making a decision. Since I never knew what lay ahead, I became comfortable with uncertainty, and choosing a career path seemed unnecessary.
I also stopped worrying about smaller choices that allowed me to procrastinate before trail: the countless options of what to eat, what to wear, whether to work or check Facebook.
On trail, there is only one choice: to hike or perish. I could stop for a snack break, put on a layer, or have a meltdown, but 15 minutes later I would have the same distance ahead of me. It turned out that walking a marathon a day didn't require the willpower and decisiveness needed to accomplish work at home. The choice was simple. Walk towards water and food, or sit still and die.
Faced with that clear choice, I thrived. But eventually winter arrived and my bank account was low and the trail ended. And unfortunately, regular life is still abundant with unclear choices. Although I am more comfortable with uncertainty, I am still unsure what to do.
Myla Fay is a designer and a long distance hiker living in Chicago. This is the first of her columns on hiking, and how to survive.