3 a.m. Misty, murky, barely 40ºF with the dank scent of snow on the wind. From a West Virginia trail padded with birch leaves, a swarm of butterflies flutters into the beam of my headlamp. I ease my aching legs to a stop, mesmerized by the choreography.
The wings of a hundred golden monarchs dance in the flickering light, orange-veined, claret-edged, bobbing and weaving like tropical fish. The throbbing in my IT band fades. The blister on my heel stops weeping. ¶ After 37 hours on the move, the moment has arrived—the one I’ve experienced on more than a dozen 24-plus-hour hikes and the one that keeps me planning more no-sleep epics (next up: a remote Grand Canyon loop in May) of endurance hiking.
It is the moment of release, when muscles stretched well beyond exhaustion click into autopilot and my mind uncouples to wander where it will, away from workaday concerns and the physical feedback that often dominates shorter walks.
I hike absurdly long distances in a single stretch because fatigue brings a freedom I can’t find anywhere else. Call it a hiker’s hypnosis, a chemical-free bridge to a world of bright colors, untethered meditation, and—sometimes, if you’re lucky—a brilliant swirl of butterflies. ¶ Or call it crazy. My partner’s voice breaks my reverie, and the monarchs float back down to earth, a hundred birch leaves momentarily animated by a stiff West Virginia breeze.