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A Thru-Hike Won’t Fix Your Life

At a crossroads in her personal life, writer Maggie Slepian decided to go on a thru-hike. But as it turns out, your problems will follow you no matter how many hundreds of miles you go.

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Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.

There’s an old adage that goes something like: “wherever you go, there you are.” I think about this a lot. I’m prone to rapidly changing my circumstances whenever something becomes emotionally challenging or inconvenient. But no matter where I am—home or a trail—I’ve found myself faced with that hard fact: I’m still myself when I get out there, and those issues don’t vanish just because I’m thru-hiking.

Last year, in the midst of a breakup, I bought a one-way ticket to Denver to hike the Colorado Trail. I don’t know if I had some Wild-esque fantasy about how solo travel through the mountains would solve my problems, but if I thought the trail would at least be a balm for my heartbreak, I was wrong. Sometimes, I felt aimlessly anxious. Other times, it felt like my problems were consciously following me from campsite to campsite. 

About halfway through the trail I set up camp near a pond. The next morning I woke up to one of the most stunning sunrises I’d ever seen, but my anxiety was so bad I could barely see the scenery through a blur of tears. I tried unsuccessfully to stifle my crying as I started cramming my gear into my pack. Then, as I crawled out of my tent, I saw a cluster of figures across the pond. With horror, I realized I was directly in the background of a sunrise wedding photoshoot, while audibly crying and blowing snot rockets. I finished packing as fast as I could in a low-grade panic.

“Rationally, I understand that running off to a trail every time something is sad or challenging isn’t a magical solution.” 

To my dismay, I still didn’t feel completely better for the rest of the trail. But I did feel something, a shift on a deeper level. I had forced myself to be alone with my thoughts—largely without distraction—against a backdrop of spectacular scenery and physical challenge. It wasn’t the immediate fix I wanted, but by the time I headed back to Montana, I had to acknowledge that I’d gained some perspective and made progress through an emotionally taxing time.

Still, I keep trying to run. Recently, I found myself at another personal crossroads, and I instinctively started looking for a gap in my schedule where I could fit a backpacking trip. I told myself I wasn’t running away—I was just trying to get back to my outdoorsy life, which I had missed during a busy six months of work. But still, as I booked a one-way ticket to Tucson from the tailgate of my truck in a grocery store parking lot, I also felt the immediate relief that getting away for time on the trail seemed to promise. 

Rationally, I understand that running off to a trail every time something is sad or challenging isn’t a magical solution. But I do it anyway, nursing the not-so-secret hope that maybe this time it will solve my problems the easy way, not the painful, self-reflective, drawn-out way. I know this isn’t the case, but seeing my flight confirmation and thinking of those solo miles on the Arizona Trail was an instant pacifier to the pent-up anxiety I’d been feeling about my personal life and general direction. 

Don’t get me wrong: Backpacking isn’t just an attempt at self-administered therapy for me. I love the trail for all it encompasses: the beauty of the natural world, the personal challenge, the community. But part of me still sees a thru-hike as an escape from the real world, even though it’s proven to me time and time again that this is not the case. Instead, it’s bitter medicine. Spending such a large amount of time alone with my thoughts exacerbates the anxiety that was present in my normal life. Instead of a life-changing epiphany, I know I’ll have days of mental struggles that seem worse than they did at home. I also know, in the end, that this is a good thing: Facing my own thoughts without distraction is something I have trouble with in the real world.

And in the end, even if it isn’t the relief I want, I never feel like backpacking is the wrong choice. Even if it doesn’t provide answers or solutions, it provides the time to think, a forced break from the frenetic energy of day-to-day life. When I return home, my life and decisions will have been put on pause for the duration of the trip, but they’ll still be there. Recognizing this is the first step. My escape isn’t the solution to my problems, but it’s a first step toward clarity.