On the Appalachian Trail they call it ‘The Virginia Blues’ and on the Pacific Crest Trail it’s ‘The NorCal Blues.’ There wasn’t an equivalent term for it on the Continental Divide Trail, but for my hiking buddy Tumbles and I, our motivation crashed at a certain point in Colorado. We called it the ‘summer vacation’ of our thru-hike, because we didn’t want to hike, we just wanted to sit on the side of the trail and play Magic: The Gathering.
This thru-hiking experience seems to be nearly universal, almost a natural part of a long hike, especially on the Triple Crown, where you’re likely to spend 5 months or more out on trail. As I look back on my own thru-hikes of the PCT in 2019 and on the CDT in 2021, I think these ‘low’ states, while not quite enjoyable, were equally vital and necessary parts of my journey.
To borrow a saying from Avatar Aang in Avatar: The Legend of Korra, “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
Here’s a few ideas on how to bring the right perspective to your ‘summer vacation’, so you can harness the thru-hiking blues rather than allowing them to be too disruptive.
Plan For The Blues
One of the strangest things about the experience of thru-hiking blues is the dissonance. Why would we be having depressive episodes in the middle of perhaps the greatest adventure of our lives thus far? It doesn’t seem to make sense. We might think that we don’t have the right to feel bad in the middle of this experience.
NorCal and Virginia, the most common places for thru-hiking blues, have at least one thing in common. They’re right in the middle of your hike, after you’ve gotten over that feeling of new-ness, and far before you’re anywhere close to the finish. Virginia is, of course, the longest section of any state on the AT. On the PCT, you’ve just finished the Sierra Nevada, so you’ve already seen some of the best views the trail has to offer, and you’re still in the neverending state that is California. By that point, you’ve gotten quite used to all this hiking, and all that’s left is to keep doing it, like, forever.
Here’s the thing: it’s natural for the novelty to wear off, and it’s natural for the remaining 1,000+ miles to be daunting. If you know this feeling is going to come ahead of time, and if you accept the fact that it’s not a crime to feel what you’re feeling, you’ll be off to a better start.
Don’t Cope The Way You’re Used To
I’m not one to tell people how to deal with bad feelings. We all have our vices. But one thing about thru-hikers is that everyone’s out there for a reason. Ideally, everyone is out there hiking toward something, but plenty of us are out there hiking away from our pasts as well. If you have old habits you’re trying to get away from — drinking, smoking, et cetera — this is going to be the time you’ll feel tempted to pick them back up.
I should mention I’m speaking with some personal experience here. I didn’t complete my PCT hike. I made it about 1,700 miles out of the 2,650 I set out to do. But, when I think about what affected my PCT experience negatively, it wasn’t the sections I skipped or the miles I missed. It was the point at the end of the Sierra where I drank in a way I was uncomfortable with, that I had been used to in the past. It wasn’t where my thru-hike ended, but it was a section where, for at least a while, I did give up.
Thru-hiking is an experience that incorporates a lot of things, and for some people that’s the party scene in trail towns. But for me, with my personal history, that was a line I wish I hadn’t crossed. Prioritizing drinking in town felt counter to the thru-hiking experience I wanted.
Embrace The Magic
So, Tumbles and I were in the middle of our thru-hike’s summer vacation, sitting on the side of the CDT’s Silverthorne alt, playing Magic: The Gathering, not hiking. A guy named Ronny came up to us and introduced himself. I remember Ronny distinctly, because he was breathing hard when he approached us, and didn’t catch his breath the entire time we spoke, which lasted several minutes. He was working to get acclimated to the elevation.
Ronny thought correctly that if we were out here playing Magic, we might be interested in a shortcut or two. He showed us a possible alternate route, a big one, explaining that we could follow the Gore Range Trail, cross the Colorado River at Radium Hot Springs near Kremmling, then string together a bunch of forest roads to Rabbit Ears Pass. There, we could find our way to Steamboat Springs.
The funny thing about embracing this alt was that it meant we would miss some really beautiful parts of the CDT. However, we knew the parts of Colorado we saw instead would be beautiful as well. What we needed was a new, equally grand adventure, one that was even further off the beaten path. We needed novelty and that involved making our own route. After we stopped by Dillon and, completely by accident, caught a String Cheese Incident concert, we walked up and out of town to embrace our alternate.
Try To Stay Present
Of course, a magical alternate to re-invigorate you won’t always fall right into your lap. And realistically, my low period didn’t end after we were blessed with some trail magic and a renewed sense of adventure. That’s the thing about these bad feelings — they’re persistent.
Hiking, in many ways, is active meditation. I think this is part of the reason we start to feel ‘off’ after a month or two of hiking. Active meditation forces you to be present, and being present brings stuff up.
Ask yourself what you use as a crutch when that stuff starts to surface. For me, when I had hard mornings or difficult sections on the CDT, I leaned hard on music, podcasts and audiobooks. Slipping headphones in while you hike isn’t a bad thing by any means, I just used them constantly. Often, I would leave only one headphone in for safety, but still. I got near the end of the CDT, and I realized I had hardly spent any time hiking without something in my ears. I regretted that I hadn’t intentionally given myself that experience of listening to the land.
What we have in thru-hiking is an incredible opportunity for presence, but remaining present is incredibly difficult. From my perspective, the only way out is through. Consider trying to lean further into mindfulness. Try a few days of silence and solitude as you hike. Focus on returning, over and over again, to your breath, to your footsteps.
We so often refer to the thru-hiking experience as an escape. But, there’s another refrain that’s also true — this is real life too. It is just as real as every other period in your life. It is equally authentic, equally meaningful. It’s not just some separate adventure in which you are a completely different person. It’s not a pause in your life, it’s a continuation of it. You won’t enjoy every minute, not even close. But you will change along the way, just as you’ll continue changing long after you’ve touched that terminus.
Matthew Kok is an essayist, a poet, a traveler, and absolutely in love with the world outside. They are currently operating out of Manapouri, a little town in Aotearoa–South Island, New Zealand. You can find them curled up with Stormy the housecat or cooking up big, elaborate breakfasts late in the morning. You can also find them on Instagram at @matt.kok