On publishing a trail journal

I feel deeply torn about publishing a journal about the Colorado Trail, for all it consumed months of planning, sucked up 4 weeks of my life, and was probably the most physically difficult thing I've ever done (note that I've never given birth or run an ultramarathon, so take that with a grain of salt). I figured I would keep a journal, but publishing it? That triggers all manner of negative reactions in me.

At core, I hate the idea of an unseen audience getting to read, experience, and judge my life. It's difficult to write about the Colorado Trail without also delving into lots of personal territory, since so much of the experience is a personal one. What's my brain doing as I trek up this hill, what's my body doing as I lie down to sleep? Everyone experiences the trail differently, and so much of that difference boils down to physical reactions, mental responses, and intention. Trying to carve those things out of the experience would leave almost nothing, a shell of a travel guide. Useless and uninteresting.

But detailing them means inviting unknowable persons into my mind and life in ways I find chilling. Even as I was writing this journal, I kept wondering, do I really want to let the world know about my nausea and despair, my weird daydreams and some of the regrettable book choices I made on the trail?

I also hate the idea of this trip being for anybody else. I hate the idea of the experiences being changed or adapted in response to an imaginary audience. Will I act differently, knowing this could go online? Will I censor myself, change the experience to fit expectations of people I can imagine but most likely will never hear from? Will hiking this trail become some kind of performance?

My skin crawls at the thought. My stomach turns over.

And this isn't just my hike. It's a hike shared with my partner Granite, who brought me into backpacking 3 years ago when we first met. So much of my daily life on the trail, my thoughts, my interactions, are with or about him. How could I write about the Colorado Trail and not write about Granite and consequently at least a bit about our relationship?

That drops me from deep discomfort into outright opposition.

Saying I "value privacy" doesn't come close to showcasing the importance I place on keeping my romantic life off the Web. When it comes to my family and my romantic life, I've gone to great—if sometimes cumbersome—lengths to keep a firm barrier in place between my Googleable life and that which is known to friends and acquaintances. Where I've stepped forward into placing things publicly online—like that one time I changed my relationship status on Facebook, or my queasy attempts at online dating years ago—it's tended to be with ambivalence, extensive contemplation, careful framing, and often a courage-inspiring stiff drink.

I feared it would be impossible to write a trail journal that didn't intimate the details of my relationship with Granite. Or it could be written, but it wouldn't be honest. And wouldn't that be the worse crime?

So, given all this, why am I publishing this?

I owe a great debt to the folks who have written about the Colorado Trail previously, and to others who have completed thru hikes and written about the experience. This trip would not have been possible without their courageous and candid accounts.

Some of that came in the form of blog posts and articles I read about gear and trail life, from reviews of sports bras and how to handle menstruating in the woods to what kind of filter and stove to buy and the relative merits of trail runners v. traditional hiking boots.

But most of what I really learned about thru hiking I learned from trail journals: daily, often demoralizing accounts of life on the trail. I spent hours reading the trail journals of folks who attempted the Colorado Trail in years past. I learned as much—if not more—from those who ended their trip prematurely, overwhelmed by the trail or dissatisfied with the experience or suffering physical ailments, as I did from those who completed it.

There are countless trail journals from fit, experienced men who can crank out 20 mile days and sleep in a bivvy sack or under a tarp, don't carry a stove, bring barely enough food to survive. I tended to skip these, since so little of their experience coincided with what I have known on my prior backpacking trips. I gravitated instead toward the trail journals of couples on their first long distance backpacking trip, first time thru hikers, and the journals of women who had never done anything like this before. And these hikers didn't leap along at 20 miles a day; they tended to limp painfully for 10 or 13 miles a day, vomiting and blistered and soaked to the bone. Too-heavy packs, muscles screaming, a little freaked out in the woods from time to time. Hoping to find something. Sometimes lonely.

These are my people.

It was months of reading these trail journals that convinced me that the Colorado Trail was worth attempting, and that regular people like me could probably do it, and that luck mattered a bit on this trip but commonsense mattered a lot. These journals opened up a world to me I hadn't ever imagined, taught me the temperament and character of the Rocky Mountains.

Some of the wisdom in these journals I ignored, and had to learn anew on the trail. Some of that wisdom I believed, but still had to learn myself on the trail. But it would have been impossible for me to hike 300 miles without the honesty and dedication of countless strangers on the Internet who wrote down the details of their experience. (And if you're looking for a few to start with, I'd recommend Dean Krakel, Nick and Kayla, Jamie Campos, and as much as you can stand on TrailJournals.com. I also found Carrot Quinn's account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail invaluable, even if it was a different trail.)

It wasn't the details of elevation and mileage that helped me prep for and complete this hike, though of course those are interesting. It was reading the details of how people responded to the trail—the achilles pain, the blisters, mornings with a tent covered in frost in July and no gloves, afternoons hurrying off high ridges in thunderstorms with terror at their heels, loneliness, and longings to throw in the towel and go home. I poured over the details of these journals looking for patterns, trying to determine if there was some mental trick, some piece of gear, some backpacking practice that separated thru hikers who walked to completion from the many who dropped out early, often in the first 100 miles. These trail journals inspired me, challenged me, and sobered me to the realities of the trail.

It's not just that I couldn't have done this without them. It's that I wouldn't have even tried.

This, then, is a journal of gratitude. I owe my trip—or much of it—to these strangers on the Internet who were willing to share their stories. And so I'm publishing this journal to share my story in response. Maybe someday, someone will read it and take a little heart from this journal and decide to head out on the trail. Or maybe they'll gather a little wisdom and choose to make gear or itinerary adjustments based on what I've written.

That's how I got past my violent ambivalence about writing and publishing a trail journal. I stopped thinking about the Unknown Countless Others reading my journal and wondering, judging, criticizing. I tried to let go of the fear that this journal would be an unerasable blemish on my digital reputation, showcasing my insecurities, failings, and weaknesses. I focused instead on just one thing: what can I give back to the thru hiking community, to the future generations of Colorado Trail thru hikers and those attempting other trails? I imagined other people like me, who have never tried a trail nearly so long.

When I think of it like that, it's easy to see that the achy, painful, beautiful, smelly, awe-inspiring, weird truth is the only truth that would make any sense, the only truth that would be worth publishing. These future hikers don't want or deserve a sanitized, pretty version of the trail.

I hope you enjoy this trail journal, and please feel free to write me an email or leave a comment if you have feedback or questions.

Go to Day 1 of the trail journal.