The past several months of my life has been defined by the pursuit of treks around the world. I feel like a specter hovering in limbo; waiting for the next opportunity to immerse myself among mountains in order to come back to life. But, I wasn’t always this way. When I embarked on my first trek, I was weighed down by intense feelings of restlessness, selfishness, fear, and ambition. I thought going on this solo trek would create a space for my mind to sort through the many unanswered strings that floated around in my consciousness. I had quit my job the week before, I had no future concrete plans, I was guiding the route solo, and oh yeah… I didn’t know French. Well, that’s not completely true; I know colors and the names of Lu cookies (courtesy of my after school program in elementary school; thanks, mom).
While being outdoors does create thought space, I’ve found that it doesn’t literally occur for me during the act of trekking. The reflections come flooding in once I’ve returned. Honestly, when I’m out there, my mind goes numb. Similarly to meditation, I focus on my breath and the sensation of blood pumping throughout my body. So, why do I trek? Why would anyone actively subject themselves to grueling ascents, dusty roads, uncomfortable bunk beds, cold nights, and seemingly precarious situations? Why do I feel the need to chase mountains across the wide expanse of oceans?
I’m chasing purpose. I had no idea this was the case until I concluded my first trek– Tour du Mont Blanc. It began as a response to the siren’s call of adventure and inadvertently finished with a realization that I had encountered a taste of intention. When you’re overwhelmed by the gravity of life, it’s easy to get bogged down. Trekking is different. There’s a defined path. You know exactly where you are going tomorrow, next week, and as far as you want until you reach the destination. Tell me about a time in your life when you’ve known where you were headed with that much clarity. There are no roadmaps in life. All I know is that I press forward from day to day, strive to be a better person than the day before, fail in some moments, and pick myself up with the support of people I care about. Living is no simple feat.
Before I can convey how trekking has brought me a sense of purpose, I want to pull you back to the first inkling of an idea– because this is where it truly begins. I start with the image of a mountain or a country. Like a mad scientist, I concoct a list of the unknowns co-mingled with tidbits I’ve learned. I write it all down, dumped carelessly in a frenzy of a document. I devour blogs, adventure company itineraries, packing lists, and guide books with a fever that has no intention of breaking. After a while, a path begins to materialize. It happens unexpectedly; kind of like that feeling you get when you learn how to float in water for the first time.
Finding the starting point feels like taking your first footstep on the trail. I map out a tentative route beginning with the trailhead. Where should I position myself before the trek? How am I going to get there? These answers are fulfilled one by one via the collective consciousness we call the internet. I always marvel at how much people are willing to share their experiences to no one in particular; with intention that it will someday benefit someone. It nurtures a hope within that makes me believe people naturally want to help other people. Like a line of dominos, the pieces fall into place. I probe, I scrawl, I formulate tables, and develop daily itineraries. The unsettled feeling in my stomach finds a place of confidence as I move over to the physical preparation. A pile of supplies and gear begins to evolve next to the desk where I spend my hours furiously typing away.
I show up at the airport, trekking poles tucked away, smiling with the knowledge that I’m carrying everything I’m going to need for the next stretch of time. The airport is an interesting place; arrivals, departures, heartache, and prospect. I can’t help but wonder about the crowd of people before me. Some are going on business trips, traveling home, off to see their loved ones, or holding hands as they set off for their first journey together. I always wonder who else is embarking on an expedition. Perhaps their belongings are covertly tucked away in one of those shiny suitcases.
Stepping foot in a foreign airport can be an assault on the senses. I discover the first sensation through wafts of fresh air between the cracks connecting the plane and the ramp. My eyes scan, in search of English text in a bed of incomprehensible language. Thank god for universal symbols and years of charades games which have bolstered my pantomiming skills. As I make my way out of the airport and into the city center, I size up the stretches of landscape, traffic flow, advertisement billboards, and even the music blaring from the taxi driver’s stereo. I’m an alien teleporting down to Earth for the first time.
Through every form of transportation imaginable, I gradually make my way out of the city and closer to the location of the trailhead. With every bus, train, car ride, and step, I begin to see others of my kind. There they are, carrying heavy backpacks with rugged gleams in their eyes. You recognize them as your trail comrades and can’t help but feel instantly connected. Trekking is so much more than walking around toothy peaked mountains and testing your physical prowess. It’s about the people I share stories with, get inspired by, break bread with, look out for on the trail, and reconnect with when I return home.
More than anything else, we have an unspoken recognition that we understand each other. We want to feel the ground beneath our feet and let our minds lift us into weightless imaginary spaces.
The first couple of steps always feels too easy. With an uncanny lightness, my backpack sits proudly on my strong frame filled with a sense of polished grit. I’m giddy. My camera strap is positioned diagonally across my body and I’ve developed a reflexive habit where I can quickly snap pictures and release in a way that’s second nature. There’s a mysterious squeaky noise that comes from deep within my backpack. I have suspicions about its genesis, but in truth, I welcome the noise. I only hear it when I’m trekking.
The day unfolds before me, one step at a time. I relish in the flat stretches, eagerly traipse down any descending paths, and breath silent curses during elevation gains. Ascending has always been difficult for me. My legs burn, I feel unwieldy, I slow down, and the backpack feels as if ten extra pounds have been added. In those moments, I become Atlas; hefting the weight of the sky on my shoulders. It’s these vicissitudes that are humbling. My most treasured moment of the day comes when I sit down to eat lunch on the side of the trail. The rivulets of sweat that had been rolling down my forehead finally get the chance to dry. Sounds of subtle chirps in the environment become amplified. I embrace the notion that every bite of food brings more strength. Apples have never tasted so good.
Upon arrival to your evening destination, it’s hard to describe the sense of relief that washes over your psyche. The aches of the day simultaneously melt and intensify the moment I take the load off my back. My body slumps into any open chair. During dinner time, I tenderly join any available spot around the table. The meal is presented family style, and the simple act of passing the serving bowl to each other strengthens our bonds as trekkers. Despite my own family being thousands of miles away, I’m warmed by their presence in this foreign land. We talk about that day’s route and future paths– literally and figuratively. We exchange suggestions and laugh about the mishaps. With slight hesitations of vulnerability, we talk about the various reasons we’ve ended up around the table. If you’ve ever wanted to be inspired by real people, this is the place where fables are right within reach.
The next morning brings a different air of determination. The sounds of gear being zipped away boomerangs throughout the complex. Water bottles are refilled and breakfast is consumed passionately. Maps are checked while hot cups of coffee are guzzled down. I gingerly step outside to greet the morning as the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile. There are no doubts about where I’m headed.
The Place Where It All Began: Tour du Mont Blanc, Europe
Enchantment by a Crater Lake: Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
Out of the Mountains and Into the Jungle: Northern Thailand, Southeast Asia
A Faraway Dream that Became Real: Annapurna Circuit, Southern Asia (coming soon)
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