Redtail's Rules of Thru-Hiking

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Thru-hiking really is its own little world. When you set foot on that trail at the border, you enter a zone where your expectations, by and large, need to be chucked out of the window. (Since you don't even have any windows out there, your vocabulary and idioms probably need an overhaul, too.)

I learned a lot of things while out on my thru-hike. The following is a list of nuggets of wisdom that I compiled over the course of the trip. Some are funny, some are sobering, but all of them try to condense down to a pearl of profundity one of the many adjusted expectations that helped me keep hiking with a smile on my face.

(If my explanations are a little too long-winded for your tastes, you can read the rules by themselves.)

The (Annotated) Rules

  1. (The Dead Man's Hill Rule): The worst is behind us! [Day -700]
    This was the unofficial motto of BaxWalk 2004, in which a group of friends and I climbed English Mountain (itself only about 10 miles from the PCT). Although the 10-mile round trip and mere 2,000 feet of climbing are the work of a few hours for me now, for a bunch of relatively out-of-shape desk jockeys with huge packs, it was an all-day struggle that kept coming up with more and more creative ways to pound us. Altitude sickness and a water shortage were merely the bonus problems after a full day of exhausting hiking to reach the top. I think I just about got murdered, Julius Caesar-style, when we reached brutally steep "Dead Man's Hill" after I kept assuring people we were nearly at the summit. Flash forward to 2006: After some PCT desert hiking wiped me out nearly as badly, I knew this had to be added to the Rules.

  2. Any time someone quotes you a distance left to hike, double it. [Day 15]
    This is the rule that started it all, and it has proven to be an uncannily accurate measure. Not only when I'm receiving advice, but when I'm giving it! I caught myself once telling Chai Guy he was 2/3 done with the climb back to the trail from Idyllwild, only to discover a few minutes later that I had passed the 2/3-of-the-way-down mark right after we talked.

    1. If you're "almost there," you're not. [Day 15]
      I will now no longer use this phrase unless I can accompany it by pointing at the goal in question.

  3. No amount of preparation, planning and diligence can substitute for pure dumb luck. [Day 19]
    For as much as I fretted about scorching heat making my desert crossings dangerous ... I've had ridiculous luck with the weather on this trip. All of the worst of the worst crossings have been (relatively) cool and windy, or cloudy, or both. I prepared pretty well for the heat, and I was more than ready to night-hike the worst sections, but pure chance mostly made that effort irrelevant. Yay!

  4. The foot pain will be with you, always. [Day 26]
    This is from about the time when I gave in and added a "Foot Problem Du Jour" line to my daily trail statistics in my journal. The exact nature of the foot problems changed, but there was always something wrong. That's just the nature of distance hiking.

  5. Ten miles of hiking with one landmark is longer than twelve miles with three landmarks. [Day 27]
    Trail conditions ...

    1. Ten miles of crappy tread is longer than twelve miles of good tread. [Day 27]
      ... make all the difference in the world ...

    2. Ten miles of bushwhacking is longer than anything. [Day 27]
      ... to morale and to progress.

    3. ... Except for the ten-mile descent from Mather Pass. [Day 93]
      Seriously, these 10 miles CRAWLED. The "Golden Staircase" just. didn't. end. Then, once I was out of it and in the river canyon at the bottom, the trail was a morass of mud, downed trees, and stream overflows. I quite literally spent more time off of the trail than on it. Sometimes the detours had detours.

  6. Cultivate kindness in the world; sometimes strangers are all that stand between you and nightmare. [Day 34]
    On my way back to the trail from my planned stopover at BayCon, I was riding a red-eye Greyhound bus. I went inside one of those little service stations they stop at in order to buy a hot dog and some bottled water ... and the bus pulled away without me. At 2 AM, in the middle of nowhere. With my backpack and stuff all still on my seat. Fortunately, I had just about enough time to freak right the fuck out before the driver pulled a 180 and came back to pick me up. Why? Because the passenger sitting next to me noticed my absence and went up to the driver to let him know. A stranger going above the call of duty for a small act of kindness saved me from a few days of terror and heartache, and quite probably from thousands of dollars of stolen gear.
    You might be stuck in that position someday, too. So ask yourself: Am I contributing to the world in such a way as to make that act of kindness more likely? Or am I doing the opposite?

  7. "Don't take life for granted." [Day 34]
    When I reached the Greyhound terminal in Los Angeles, a homeless woman cornered me with a sad story of her troubles, an almost offhand plea for a little assistance, and an insistent request, quoted above. It's true. We may never fall quite so far as to beg for change at a bus station, but we never know where the fortunes of life will take us; and we owe it to ourselves to appreciate all we've got, now, while we have it.

  8. God, in His infinite wisdom and love, has put upon this green earth several million insects whose sole purpose in life is to kamikaze into your eyes, ears, nose or mouth. [Day 36]
    Anyone who's hiked the San Gabriels knows exactly what I'm talking about here.

  9. Redtail's Rule of Towns: Anyone you say "You probably recognized me as a hiker ..." to, didn't. But everyone else did. [Day 39]
    Along the PCT, the popular resupply stops are getting so used to thru-hikers that you can pretty much rely on random passers-by and merchants to recognize you for who you are (and often lend aid appropriately). Except, of course, for the one time when you're actually counting on them making the connection.

  10. "I consider 'on time' to be when I get there." [Day 49]
    I bought a sticker on a whim from a vending machine in the supermarket in Mojave. And struck gold. This motto is just absolutely the perfect thru-hiker mantra. And it was something I needed to hear, too, after starting to freak out about my many trip delays.

  11. Dirt on your body grows exponentially based on proximity to ground. [Day 50]
    This is not an exaggeration. It really is an orders-of-magnitude thing. And you'd think clothing, like socks and shoes, would make a difference; trust me, it doesn't.

  12. It's always darkest before the fireworks explode in your face. [Day 51]
    This is a fancy way of saying that nature will wait until your morale is already at its lowest point before choosing to spring the most ludicrous and exaggerated trip impediments at you. How else to explain my backpack frame inexplicably snapping while I'm trying to dodge the law(*), or being attacked by a grouse the morning after my bug repellent and camera both exploded after I outran a thunderstorm?

  13. "Waterproof" means water-resistant. "Water-resistant" means nothing. [Day 63]
    Water in nature is like the Communists in paranoid right-wing conspiracy theories: It gets into everything. Double-bag everything important, no matter how awesome your protective gear claims to be.

  14. Avoid those restaurant jelly packets. It never ends well. [Day 85]
    Thru-hikers often steal the little condiment packets to spice up their backcountry meals. The sealed ones of the style used to hold ketchup tend to hold up pretty well. The square jelly box-things ... not so much. As tempting as it might be to grab those to turn your PB into a PB&J, the only thing you'll ever get out of it is a backpack&J. Moral: There's a limit to clever trekking repurposing of everyday objects.

More to come ...

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