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In talking with other PCTers, this Trail seems to offer a perfect combination of physical challenge, social interaction, and exposure to varied natural landscape. There is no question the distance and elevation change throughout the Trail places this linear park among the top physical tests for the hiking class, although I heard some Europeans complain how easy the track seemed at times. The challenge comes in trying to avoid the weather obstacles in the Sierras and Cascades, which means hiking 20 to 30 miles a day for 5 or 6 months...not easy for anyone.
Many hikers noted how much they enjoyed meeting other hikers...some have become life-long friends. Added to that are the many Trail Angels that went beyond the call of duty to bring even the slightest comfort to a cold, hungry, and lonely hiker. And while some maligned the initial 700 miles of desert in Southern California, all agreed that the wide range of environments that host the Trail kept their interest. The high desert in the south, the windmills and aqueduct of the Mojave, the High Sierras, the forests of Northern California, the volcanoes of Oregon, up to the ice fields and glaciers of the Northern Cascades...all very different theatres for a continuous show of biophysical elegance.
A majority of hikers I encountered were young, in their twenties. Some between college and a job. Others on the Trail as just something different to do. A surprising number had not heard of the PCT long before they decided to hike it, having been coerced to join a friend or family member with a flippant, "Come on...it will be easy" invitation. It's the ones who stuck with it once they discovered the truth I admire most.
As for me, I pondered long and hard on what this experience meant, this pilgrimage of an average office worker and family man...how it may have changed my view of life and living. My original purposes in tackling the PCT seem naive and small compared with what I actually gained. I wanted to explore a better work-play balance in my life. I sought something adventurous to tackle, some activity that would make me appreciate the many things in life I take for granted. And I wanted some way to feel like I earned my place and life in Canada. I thought walking from California to Canada would help with that. I got much more than I bargained for.
After completing the Trail, I am overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude, an "oh-my-gosh" appreciation of the privileges of PCT life. I had an opportunity to witness firsthand the mind-numbing effect of dawn on the high desert, and then duel with the sun in a battle for moisture in the same day. I felt the awe and honour of entering mountain halls of glory, where the earth reaches for the heavens like an endless prayer. Standing on a mountain pass, such as Forester, or an elevated ridge, such as Knife Edge, is like visiting another planet, one with massifs and voids the size of moons. Walking the earth from the 32nd parallel to the 49th offered a unique opportunity to appreciate the scope of our globe, in a way that flying by aircraft cannot. I can now envision my position on this sphere, and how I am gravity-glued to it. Somehow, that brings me comfort.
I observed the daily struggle of living things, each within their own niche, each competing for resources, living as long as possible with death the inevitable outcome. I saw my part in the universe as no different than that of a shrub or tree or toad or bird. Like them, I am temporary, death certain. With little imagination, I could extend my arms to embrace the beginning and the end of things, and saw my time in this current form as nothing longer than a finger snap. Somehow, that is also comforting.
At times I felt the only thing separating the elements that make up my body from the rocks and trees and animals along the path was this very thin boundary of skin that will, someday, simply dissolve and I will join them. Most comforting of all.
I have marvelled at the gifts from other hikers and many Trail Angels, gratefully accepted when I could give nothing in return but my story. Whenever I am tempted to believe the daily-news insistence that humanity consists of nothing but warring, greedy, desperate people, I will remember the many kindnesses I received from caring supporters of the Trail pilgrims.
Hiking at two miles an hour for ten hours a day gives one time to think. To feel. To think about how one feels. To sort out what matters, and what does not in a way that is not possible in the busy-ness and chaos of what we call daily life. Here's what I conclude.
Awareness of time matters. Enjoying "now" time matters most, like pausing to absorb the jagged horizon of a volcanic landscape. Like lying on your back in the sun, comparing the fluorescent green of the trees with the cobalt blue of the sky. We waste time like we will live forever, then wonder in shocked dismay where it all went.
Enjoyment of life matters. If I am here for a short time, what a waste it would be to suffer boredom or pain or strife when they could be avoided. The work-play balance I sought originally is a meaningless pursuit. The real quest is for enjoyment in work and play and child care and gardening and paying taxes and in every aspect of human life. Joy is a choice, I have learned, a thought to be defined and selected continuously, independent of circumstances.
Helping others enjoy life matters. If I am a temporary bag of chemicals fortunate to have awareness, then everyone else is, too. No one deserves the pain we so often find ourselves immersed in. To help others find joy and avoid suffering is as important as helping ourselves.
That's all there is to it. Life is as simple as that. Our two jobs are to enjoy our limited time with human consciousness and to help others do the same. Nothing else matters. The daily news doesn't matter. Television doesn't matter. Acquiring the latest gadget doesn't matter. Music videos don't matter. Baseball doesn't matter (especially since the Blue Jays are out of the running). Hitting a little white ball into a cup in the ground doesn't matter (unless that brings enjoyment, Keith). Making money to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't like doesn't matter.
Now, a final word of thanks to all of you, Dear Readers. Knowing there were people who cared enough to follow the journey helped me put words to thoughts and thoughts to feelings, and that has perhaps been the greatest blessing of all. Take care and help each other.