Community can determine whether a thru hike is successful or not. While each hiker has their own reason for being on the trail we unite as a family, creating a unique culture. In a community like this, premised on taking on the grueling task of living on the trail for months on end, inspiration and encouragement are vital. This often comes in the form of tidbits of wisdom that get passed around, adages created to inspire, entertain, and often both. There is an immense amount of philosophy packed into these short maxims. As I made my way to Walker Pass this week I got to see one play out repeatedly, “The trail giveth and the trail taketh away.”
The sentiment behind this saying reminds me of the Stoic philosophy. In acknowledging the fleeting reality of good and bad occurrences we can transcend and find a state of repose. This is necessary when dealing with complications like waking up to an ocean like puddle in your tent, falling days behind your plan, or missing the last bus into town.
During my resupply in Kennedy Meadows I had a short conversation with a father and his two sons out on a hunting trip. While exchanging the usual pleasantries, “How far are you headed? […] Wow all the way to Mexico, you have got a long way to go,” his sons where collecting seeds from the ground. As a wannabee forager and a hungry hiker I couldn’t resist finding out more. I soon learned they were collecting Pinyon Pine Nuts.
People in the great basin have collected these nuts for over 2,000 years, that is no exaggeration. While it was a staple in their diet it provided me with a tasty treat throughout the day, the trail giveth.
While food was in abundance the lack of water became clear as soon as I left Kennedy Meadows. One of my favorite parts of being on trail is dipping in the cold water of rivers and lakes. Not only has this favorite pastime of mine stopped but the lack goes even deeper. Before this week every couple of miles has provided a reliable source of water. In the desert I get one or two chances to fill up in an entire day. This means that when I do find water I have to carry several liters at a time. All the way to Walker Pass I had a mere four natural water sources. This feels like a big taketh but there is an element of giveth, water caches.
The generosity of people known as trail angels is astounding, heart warming, but most of all thirst quenching. While hiking through these long waterless stretches of desert the angles leave huge water caches for hikers. I counted nearly 100 gallons of water at one of the caches I passed this week, the trail giveth.
Food and water are vital fuel for hiking but they are not these reason I am out here. Ultimately this journey is about experience and growth. In this area the trail truly gives and takes. I have met many great people on the trail. New friends to talk about the purpose of life, ramble about philosophy, and of course hike with. Sometimes I get to hike with these people for upwards of a week, sometimes I only get to share a brief lunch with them. No matter how deeply we connect we always split up eventually due to different paces.
It can be heartbreaking to depart from these people, but there is a certain beauty to the shortness of our relationships. I am provided with the opportunity to constantly forge new connections as the ‘old’ ones drift away. While the process is taxing it has become a way of life for me on the trail, and thanks to social media, I never truly part ways.
Ultimately whether the trail giveth or taketh I am learning to appreciate it. The philosopher Heraclitus had a theory of constant flux. His innovation was to posit that everything is always moving and changing. Through the trail I am able to see where he is coming from with the constant ebb and flow that has been characteristic of this week,. I see the flux, despite the seeming repetition of my daily schedule so well articulated by my step father, “Eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat.”