“What am I doing out here? I don’t want to be here.” It was only my third night on the John Muir Trail and utter soul-wrenching shake-you-to-the-core loneliness had set in.
I identify as a stubborn perfectionist. I fill my life with daily reminders to take it easy on myself: a bracelet I wear each day says, “you are enough,” a magnet on my fridge tells me, “life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful,” another reminder of “you are enough” rests on the bathroom mirror. Still, I often beat myself up over what I see as failure. When I set out to hike the 220-mile John Muir Trail solo, not completing the entire trail wasn’t an option. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. I’m an outdoor educator and thought I was in for a vacation.
I started out of Whitney Portal later than I had wanted, but with high winds, daylight made me feel safe. I spent the first several hours reflecting on the previous week spent with a college friend. After a week of incredible companionship, hiking alone presented a mental and emotional challenge, but at the time, I felt up for it. Aside from the wind blowing me over a few times, I handled the 42 pounds on my back well and felt up for the physical challenge, too.
The John Muir Trail runs 211 miles from the summit of Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley. Most would say the trail is 220 miles because you can’t magically transport yourself to the top of a mountain. You must slog the 10-plus miles to the summit of the tallest peak in the lower-48. Initially, I planned to go all the way to the summit of Mount Whitney, even though my friend and I summited four days prior as a long day hike. When I considered the high winds and the many miles that waited for me on the other side of Whitney that day, I asked myself “Why?” This was the first time I asked myself that. I realized I didn’t even know why I was on the trail. Other people asked, and I often responded with, “Why not?” I knew why I loved Type 2 fun — I love overcoming physical and mental challenges. They teach me self-efficacy. They remind me that I am strong and capable. But why this trail, why now, why alone? As far as I could tell, I was just out there to crush. Fortunately, the mountains had something else in store for me.
My question about purpose led to a deeper one: “What am I trying to prove and to whom?”