One of the defining qualities of this hike was the opportunity to hike with other people, specifically, three very agreeable people who are very similar to myself. Besides the company, the conversation, the close quarters, the opportunity to hate someone else in so many ways, the inside jokes to develop, hiking with others is a great motivator.
I have always been greatly motivated by competition. Don’t tell my hike-mates. I love winning, I love a challenge, and when I lose I get really surly and upset. And yet, I am preparing to hike 2,660 miles with three people who are generally stronger than me, or can at least give me a good run for it.
My voracious competitiveness certainly came into play while guiding with Quetzaltrekkers in Guatemala. Halfway into the three day Lago Atitlan trek, trekkers are confronted with a very steep climb up a vertical mountain face. The stretch that we call “Record Hill” is the most difficult part of the entire trek. The record was set several years ago by the indomitable guide Santi, at 9 minutes and 4 seconds. Guides infamously race up the hill and try to beat others’, and their own, times, often averaging between 11 and 13 minutes. Some clients take as long as 45 minutes going up this stretch.
I am not the fastest hill-climber, my strength is long distances rather than racing up switchbacks. Regardless, every trek would find me saying I would stick with the slower clients in the back, followed by a change of heart right at the bottom of the hill. Even with a belly full of fried chicken breakfast (thank you, Isabel), I raced up that damn hill. Every time, near the top, I would consider how stupid this was, as I considered throwing up my fried chicken.
It took me maybe four treks, and four climbs, to get over it. The first time I slowly walked up Record Hill, I chatted with a fantastic German couple, hung back and took a piss over a cliff with an amazing view, and found some incredible plants I’d never seen before. Racing up the hill was honestly easier, because it’s over quickly, and it somehow feels good to put your body through that intense pain.
To say the least, in over 10 Lago treks I raced up that hill at least 6 times. My personal record was set when an incredibly fit, non-English speaking Israeli came up behind me towards the top of the hill. I waved him ahead of me, since he was clearly going to beat 10 minutes, he shook his head and pointed at me to run the rest with him. I was so winded, confused and propelled by his challenge that I just did it. I beat my record by a good 45 seconds.
The first time I backpacked alone, I didn’t tell many people about it. I didn’t have a car, so I loaded up my backpack, borrowed a tent, and took a bus to the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park, an enormous wild forest within the city limits of Portland. Anyone who knows Forest Park knows this is slightly hilarious and very strange, because Forest Park, despite its enormous size, is a day destination within Portland for dog-walkers and runners. It is definitely illegal to camp there. It’s also very creepy inside; several horrific TV/movie scenes have been filmed there, and a man and his daughter even lived illegally within Forest Park for years without anyone noticing.
I was an inexperienced backpacker in many ways, and rain dumped all through the first night and next morning. It was beautiful. I listened to the water hit the leaves, observed fat banana slugs sliming the trail. I hiked very quickly. I was terrified of being attacked, where no one would find me, so I subtly kept my hand on the bear spray and safety whistle attached to my backpack whenever I passed another human on the trail.
In some ways, I am a better hiker by myself. I love making all my own decisions, not relying on the needs or opinions of others. It is pure self-time. Eat when I want. Rest when I want. Camp when I want. Start the morning when I want. It is unbelievably freeing. I set my own goals, and I challenge myself.
Without other people around, I hike faster and longer. There is no one to keep pace with, to match energy with, so I push hard. On my last solo trip, section hiking the PCT, I hiked 31 miles in one day, through two raging thunderstorms and over two mountains. I was terrified by myself in those conditions, but I was propelled by the knowledge that I was in control of my own body and my fate. It was immensely empowering to get safely through that day.
I can challenge myself, as well as challenge my fellow hike-mates (I know they’re pretty competitive themselves). Most importantly, I trust them enough to compete with them both safely and brutally. They will push me hard; the trail will push me hard. I’m looking forward to the battle, but I know I won’t be facing it alone.