In July of 2015 I solo-hiked all 211+ miles of the John Muir Trail (JMT). It runs through California’s Eastern Sierra mountains, from the floor of Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. It’s not a huge outdoor accomplishment by some standards, but it’s the longest hike I’ve ever done.
In the years following, I’ve answered many many questions about it: Was it difficult? (Yes.) Was it beautiful? (Also, yes.) How long did it take you? (I had 24 days, so I took 24 days; slow by many standards.) Did you go crazy with only your own brain to talk to for so long? (I made many friends along the way, but also no: I’m an only child and I thrive on self-reflection.)
And then, always, the big kicker: WHY? Why would you hike so far by yourself? What motivated you? Why did you do something like that, especially all alone?
With the proliferation of popular outdoor stories and the explosive growth in interest in thru hiking in the past few years, the answer to the question why is assumed to be something big, something that really validates a big hike. Are you healing a trauma? Chasing a dream? Changing your life? Did you go to discover yourself out there? Did it work?
The answer to the question why is assumed to be something big, something that really validates a big hike.
So, why did I hike so far, up 47,000 combined feet of elevation gain, through hail and rain and biting bugs and sunshine? The answer, for me, is basically a big old shrug.
I hiked it because I have a body that can, a work schedule that allowed me to, because I love the Sierras, because alpine views are the best.
I hiked it because being outside is nice and makes me happy and feels good and is good for me. I hiked it to see if I’d like it, to see if I could, because what the hell else is there to do in life anyways?
I hiked it because all of those reasons are enough, because chasing simple joys is always (and should always be) a big enough reason why.
If I’m being the most honest, I hiked the John Muir Trail because of a passing fancy—just because I felt like it—with less than three weeks of real notice or planning, without a permit reserved months in advance (I used a walk up permit), and with only a general sense of whether I’d love it or not.
Of course it’s always important to be safe and prepared when you go out into the wilderness, but if you’re being real with yourself and know that you’re capable of safely trying, don’t you owe yourself the attempt? Why do we assume that anything more than a passing fancy is needed, that there should always be a bigger goal than having fun?
My answer to what led me to this “Pretty Big Hike” is boring, but I think it’s important: we spend so much time weighing each thing we set out to do that sometimes we lose sight of the simple joy of doing, especially when it involves getting outside.
We spend so much time weighing each thing we set out to do that sometimes we lose sight of the simple joy of doing, especially when it involves getting outside.
I may not have had a driving reason when I left, but over the course of the hike I still managed to learn things about myself, spend time thinking, get in better hiking shape, and so on. Most importantly though, I had FUN. When else do you get the chance to pursue fun and have it be your only true objective?
I didn’t set out with a big old question and I didn’t find any huge answers, but I did learn little things, chase happiness, make friends, and drink fresh mountain water.
It doesn’t have to be life-changing or purpose-driven to be worth your time and effort.
In a world of big social media presences and an “always on” mentality, it’s good to get back to the little things, relearn what makes you smile, and focus on the present. You can go without a big reason and you can return without having undergone a big change.
It doesn’t have to be life-changing or purpose-driven to be worth your time and effort. You can do things for fun that are big, you can give yourself big challenges just to see if you can, just for pure joy.
And you can always, and should always, chase your whims.
Editor’s note: The John Muir Trail is an ancestral Paiute trade route, called Nuumo Poyo meaning “Paiute Road” or more directly, “People’s Trail.”
Looking for more information about a JMT thru-hike? Check out Marinel Jesus’s Northbound JMT Thru-Hike Guide on Brown Gal Trekker.
Simone Anne (@simone_anne) is a travel and commercial photographer with a love of color and emotion. She captures the natural environment and the beauty of the city with equal love and her work is recognized easily by the natural, evocative way that she depicts the world and the humans who make it come alive. She’s explored in five continents, road tripped through old and new America, and eaten excellent meals with locals on plastic stools while saying thank you in more languages than she can remember. She is also a wedding photographer. California is home base and her camera is home.