What I Learned Walking from Mexico to Canada
Ready to ditch the concrete jungle to have the adventure of a lifetime? After quitting her job, Gina Avlonitis did exactly that. Here’s what it taught her.
Mankind may have left the savannah some million years ago, but the savannah never quite left us. We co-evolved with nature, so our need for it is hardwired into us.
As an urban ecologist, I wanted to understand my relationship with nature. So, two years ago, after an awful break-up and a long-overdue job resignation, I decided to throw myself into the wilderness for six months and walk the Pacific Crest Trail. It spans 4 300 kilometres and stretches across the west coast of America from the border of Mexico, all the way across California, Oregon, Washington and then Canada.
You take what you need to survive on your back and are responsible for your wellbeing. Just you, your two feet, a map, a compass and the trail.
It was one of the hardest and most significant things I have ever done for myself. And here’s what I learnt.
1. We're Beautifully Designed Machines
It's amazing to think that humans were designed for this. Mine was certainly not yet used to walking over nine hours for 20 miles a day with a heavy backpack and nine litres of water. For about two months, I limped into my tent with pains and spasms.
Even though the pain was constant, I learnt to be at peace with the discomfort and each day I felt slightly stronger. After all, pain is there to protect us as we build strength and endurance. My body morphed into an endurance machine over the six months of hiking. I've lost this body now, but it's good to know it's still in me. It's in all of us.
2. We’re Obsessed With 'Stuff'
Nothing made my materialism more apparent to me than having to carry everything I needed to survive in one bag for six months. My 'stuff' nearly ended my hike. Things I kept for 'comfort' ended up making me uncomfortable because I had to carry them. I had to learn to let go.
With nothing, we are all the same. There’s no status, materialism, wealth or power in the wilderness and therefore less room for egos. Throw us in nature with the bare essentials and we are who we are, and we learn to better appreciate small pleasures and truly connect with others.
3. Patience and Moderation are Necessary Life Skills
We live in a world of instant gratification. The hiking experience in the Sierras was a test of patience. There was the altitude, technical terrain and melting snow to compete with. You cannot take your eyes off the trail or you'll trip. It takes perseverance and grit.
Moderation is the key to survival but learning to ration while hungry is difficult. But you have to make it last. It was the hardest I’ve had to fight against my instant gratification. And although my patience has not improved much, I am more aware of how our development and technological advancements have made us more wired for it.
4. Camaraderie and Connections are Important
Humans are social animals. The need to belong within society is deeply ingrained in us and is becoming more difficult in the modern, often-isolating world.
As an only child, I have always loved being on my own and am fiercely independent. But being thrust into the middle of nowhere made me feel more vulnerable and more human than ever. I learnt that people really can be magic and that it's okay to crave companionship. The reason we're so successful as a species is because of our ability to share knowledge and work as a team. I doubt I would have made it through the last week had it not been for the advice, camaraderie and kindness of others. Talk about restoring my faith in humanity!
5. Dirt isn’t Really Dirty
On this section of the trail, you become so dirty that you become a part of the dirt around you. Despite looking like this, I didn't feel dirty unless I'd been exposed to human dirt. The sand, soil and dust didn't bother me at all. Of course, it was always a treat when I was able to have a shower, but I'm not half as bothered by being without one as I had imagined.
Also, antidepressant microbes in soil can result in the production of serotonin. The natural effects of the soil bacteria antidepressant are believed to be felt for up to three weeks. So playing in the dirt could just improve your mood!
6. You Develop a New Relationship with Time
I had not slept solidly through the night once in the past three and a half months but have grown accustomed to this. Sleeping like this makes you attuned to when the sun rises and sets and the familiar pattern of stars slowly moving across the sky. It's been humbling and sometimes maddening to experience the earth's quiet hours
Sleeping on the ground also makes you less formidable to forest creatures. Deer have just about walked right over me and birds came to give their morning calls extra close.
7. I Realised How Small and Insignificant We Are
When was the last time you had an awe-inspiring moment? This is something which I now chase, and which I can only find in nature. Hiking in the Northern Washington Cascade mountains was humbling. The weather is ever-changing and there is a constant risk of slipping or landslides. The mountains made me feel both small and vulnerable and yet victorious for conquering them.
I learnt that life is fragile. One misjudgement, bad decision or swoop of fate and we could be gone. Being in nature, exposed to the elements, you realise how small and insignificant you are. And it is a beautiful and humbling experience.
8. We Need to Allow Ourselves Raw Freedom
We used to think that rising wealth would mean less work, longer holidays and more choice. But working hours continue to increase and our time is governed by a corporate culture that smothers autonomy and creativity. Technologies that promised to make life easier fill our heads with noise so persistent it stifles the ability to think.
Even the freedoms we do possess we tend not to exercise. We spend hours every day watching other people doing what we might otherwise be doing on social media.
This sensation often overwhelmed me on the trail. Freedom doesn’t necessarily mean doing what you like all the time. As the saying goes, life begins outside of your comfort zone. I might have been struggling or miserable at times, but I felt the freest I have ever felt in my life.
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