The Uncomfortable Unknown – GDT Solo Thru
“My heart turned ever to my memory pictures of the Rockies and open spaces.” – Mary Schaffer
I have been thru-hiking the Great Divide Trail now since early August, and decided to do this endeavour solo – a seemingly regular task to my more seasoned adventurers, but a massive undertaking for myself. Contrary to my usual ways, I had decided not to blog my trip, but rather to give myself the time and space to hike my very best hike, unencumbered by the onerous task of being creative and witty through words. (Stay tuned, however, for a video series expected to start in a week or so, and maybe even a full novel someday)
For logistical reasons, as well as for personal reasons, I decided to hike the Great Divide Trail southbound – 1,100 kilometres of trail from Kakwa Lakes Provincial Park to Waterton Lakes at the Canada-USA border. Having yo-yo hiked the GDT in 2017 with my husband Dan ( blog and YouTube) I knew that the northern-most sections were my favourite, and I wanted to see them first. Also, Dan – my brave, fearless leader – was able to get work off for the first week of my hike, and I could use his help while I get my hiking feet. I had not backpacked alone – as in, never – and the navigational challenges of the top sections were not something I was wanting to take on alone. I was grateful for my partner, best friend, and trail guru by my side. My man has got some GRIT (check out his most recent suffer-fest) and I reasoned that maybe it would rub off on timid little me.
The weather was spotty, the trail was often MIA, but the mountains felt like home. I followed my man up and down mountain passes, through muddy bogs, and across raging rivers. Little by little, I started to “take the reins” – keeping an eye on the paper maps, planning our camp spots, and even (sometimes unsuccessfully) pointing us in the direction of the trail. This is not too bad! I think I can do this.
When Dan left the trail 150 kilometres in at Blueberry cut-off, my mind and heart were racing. All my insecurities flooded to the surface. Who do I think I am doing this alone? Can I really hike another 950 kilometres? Do I even WANT to do this? Am I capable? Am I brave enough? Am I out of my mind?!
I spiraled. I fretted. I bawled.
We said our goodbyes, and Dan steps out of the tent, leaving me alone. My crying slowly subsided, and I was left with no choice but to be brave. I was deep into the Canadian backcountry, the rain was subsiding, and I had miles to make. I packed-up camp for the first time alone, put on my backpack, and just started walking.
And I loved it. Out there, I was free. Out there, I was strong. Out there, I was capable.
Sure, it was hard – wet and cold weather, spotty poor trail, and long exhausting days – but it was strangely…comfortable. My body eased into the rhythm of the trail, my heart nearly exploded with gratitude, and my mind steadied with razor focus. It felt primitive – in a made-for-this kind of way. There truly was nowhere else I would rather be.
I am currently 650 kilometres into the Great Divide Trail, and everything is going so well. I am incredibly proud of myself. I did not expect to feel this comfortable with solo trail-life. I am learning to trust my skills, my intuition, and my God. I do not feel afraid of wildlife, and am working on my fear of poor weather – being wet for days and days in a row is my BIGGEST anxiety.
But I’m lonely. More than I could have imagined.
While I am seeing that I am capable of backpacking long distances by myself, I am very quickly realizing that I would rather not. Long distance hikes are like a drug to me, but I have no one to share this high with. I find myself filming a lot, talking to the camera, as if there is someone else there. It helps. I also pray more, and believe me, that helps too. In a way, I am not alone, and I am more thankful for the presence of my God than I ever have been in my entire existence.
It is now almost mid-September, and the weather has taken an ugly turn – perpetual rain, cold nights, and much shorter days. To make a long story short, I have taken an extended break from the trail. I am in my house, in Golden, sitting in front of my fireplace, drying out my gear and in deep reflection.
I am grappling with the same question that you likely have for me – Am I done? Did I quit?
I honesty don’t know, and that is the hardest part. I just want answers, to be able to say I am done, or I will be returning to the trail on such-and-such a date. But no. I have decided to sit with the uncomfortable unknown.
I vow to relish in the delights of home – a comfortable bed, a hot shower, and a nutritious meal – knowing that these things may be temporary. I watch the weather, hopeful for a sunny break, while happy to be stuck indoors. It’s as if I am in limbo, waiting for what exactly, I’m not sure.
I take comfort in the fact that I will get back on the trail in some capacity, to either complete my thru-hike, or venture on some section hikes with Dan. The trail is there, waiting, with open arms, like a friend who you rarely see, but you love so dearly.
I am not really sure how to feel at this point. Am I in mourning for a failed thru-hike? Am I just recovering, and trail-bound next week?
These are not trail lessons I had planned to learn – acceptance, patience, and humility.
So for now, I put on my very beat-up shoes, and hit the trails by my house. I feel light as I run, sans backpack, and alive as I breathe in the outdoors, once again high on nature. I work on the transition from trail life to house life – balancing the outdoors with the indoors – just in case this is it. I find a quick trail run to be a therapeutic way to prepare my heart to say goodbye to hiking 10+ hours a day, while staying physically conditioned “just in case.”
When I think about my time on the GDT so far, the corners of my mouth are upturned slightly, in a knowing yet private smile. My mind races with the good, the bad, the funny, and the sad. It’s like a private joke between the trail and I – a “you-had-to-be-there” type of story.
Yet no one was there. Only the trail saw me cry. Only the trail saw me laugh.
There is something sacred about this very alone, very private, and very intimate experience I had. Sure, I would rather hike for a month with someone else, so those memories can be shared and reminisced for days and years to come. But this trip is mine, and only mine. Visuals, sounds, tastes, and smells only captured by my very own senses. As Mary Schaffer puts it (a pioneering woman of exploration in the early 1900s), these are my “memory pictures of the Rockies.”
My trip. My trail. My story.