Once upon a time, a girl and her dog suddenly found themselves in a strange and unfamiliar land. This became the start of a long walk on a marked path that took her over many hills and valleys. Along the way, she met an assortment of unusual characters who joined her on the walk.
Her new friends went by names that matched their personalities. One was called the Scarecrow, another was the Tin Man, and the third was named the Cowardly Lion. They were greatly different than the girl. They didn't share her lifestyle or background, yet none of that mattered to any of them. What was important was their journey. They all shared a goal of reaching the end, and they helped each other along the way to get there.
This ragtag group was occasionally confronted with an unexpected challenge. In these, they learned to be self-reliant. They discovered their own strength as well as the strength of their friendship. And sometimes, help came to them in miraculous ways.
Each one had a reason to be on this journey, and it didn't matter that these weren't the same for each other. What's more, they didn't know what to expect from their walk. They were focused on achieving what they thought they were seeking.
I'm sure you recognize this story as the familiar and much-loved book and movie, The Wizard of Oz. But to me, it's also the story of a thru-hike on a long-distance trail. It describes my hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.
Thankfully, I was never attacked by flying monkeys. I still remember being traumatized by them at age six when I saw the movie for the first time.
When you consider Dorothy’s experiences, you understand what kept her going. You realize the instant friendships she formed along the way sustained her for the trip. Her journey wasn't easy, but she had help in unexpected ways. This is exactly what a thru-hike is like.
Like Dorothy and her friends, thru-hikers have a desire to learn something about themselves, to make themselves better before they reach the end of their journey.
My long path to thru-hiking began in Virginia, not Kansas. My wife Kim and I were there on a short vacation. While visiting the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, Kim said something to me I hadn’t expected. She suggested I could thru-hike the entire trail someday. I had never considered this before.
Until that moment, I assumed I would never be able to attempt a long hike. I would be too old before I had the freedom of time, financial security, and responsibilities to go on a six-month hike. With Kim’s support, we figured out a way to make it happen, though 14 more years passed before I was ready to start.
I was successful in my attempt to thru-hike the AT in 2017, but it wasn't easy. I suffered through bad weather and numerous ankle injuries. My hike had been a joyous and rewarding experience, but it was also physically and emotionally exhausting.
By the time I finished, I thought I was done with long-distance hiking. I couldn't imagine wanting to do that again. When anyone asked about my next hike, I answered, “I'm one and done.”
Starting about two months later, I slowly began to realize I wasn’t done. Or maybe more accurately, thru-hiking wasn’t done with me. I began to wish for another experience like the AT. I told myself I needed another challenge. With Kim's blessing, I began to plan for a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
When I thru-hiked that trail in 2019, I assumed this would satisfy my urge to be outdoors for an extended length of time, and it seemed like it had. I was sometimes asked if the Continental Divide Trail was next, and I always replied, “It doesn’t call to me.” I even said to Kim in all seriousness when I finished, "Don't let me do something like that again."
I honestly thought this was true, but just two weeks after I got home, I realized I had been fooling myself. The CDT was calling me, and I should have known it would.
Paradoxically, I still didn't understand why. Spending six months away from my wife and family was a big sacrifice. Why was I compelled to do that? I continued to tell myself I needed another challenge, but that was a superficial answer.
Was I like Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow? Was I hoping I would somehow become a different person by the end of the journey? Unlike them, I didn't know what I was seeking. I just knew I had to do it.
Then one day while I was walking on the CDT in New Mexico, the answer finally came to me. As I sometimes do while walking on a hum-drum section of trail, I was listening to a podcast. This time, it was a show called Mighty Blue on the Appalachian Trail. The host, Steve Adams, was interviewing a PCT hiker named Energizer (Mike Current).
In the episode, Energizer quoted a song with inscrutable lyrics from the 1970s. What he said was the only line in the song that made sense, and when I heard the words, tears immediately flowed.
"But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn't, didn't already have."
Bad grammar aside, these words gave me an unexpected answer to my question. There was no need for me to continue my search. What I thought I needed, the person I thought I was trying to become, was already in me.
What I wanted was to be strong and self-reliant. I wanted to be calm and comfortable in difficult circumstances. I wanted to enjoy being around other people who weren't like me. These were traits that I valued, but frankly, until this moment, I never thought they applied to me.
Thru-hiking allowed my best self to come through when I needed it. Knowing this allowed me to finally understand what happened one miserable day on the AT as I descended the rocky slope of Mt. Washington while fighting through a sprained ankle and gale-force winds. The third time I fell, I was beyond frustrated. I had enough. I decided I would get on a bus and go home at the first possibility.
My feeling of defeat lasted 20 minutes before I realized I didn't want to quit. There was no way I would allow myself to do that. Instead, I had the ability to solve this problem.
That day gave me more confidence, but I still thought I needed to prove something to myself. I didn't know what that was, which is why I decided to hike the PCT and the CDT.
Dorothy: Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?
Glinda: You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
The Scarecrow: Then why didn't you tell her before?
Glinda: Because she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
The answer for Dorothy and her hiking buddies was the same for me. Like them, I needed to learn the answer for myself, which took some time. I knew I needed to be outdoors, but it took time to understand why. I also needed to learn the importance of friends. And yes, I needed challenges in my life because these kept me invigorated.
When I discovered this while walking in New Mexico, I had a chuckle to myself. “Does this mean now I don’t have to hike to Canada?” I asked.
Of course, it didn’t. What it meant was there were many more trails I needed to hike after finishing the CDT. I must do this to be myself.
I need to be a thru-hiker.
When things are real
And people share the gift of gab
Some are quick
To take the bait
And catch the perfect prize
That waits among the shelves
But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man
That he didn't, didn't already have
And 'cause never was the reason for the evening
Or the tropic of Sir Galahad