Andrew Steven is a professional podcaster and self-proclaimed “reluctant hiker” who, at age 32, decided to make a radical departure in his sedentary life to train for a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail. Naturally, he made a podcast about it, Trail Weight, which is available here, and which is excellent. (Click here for a trailer). Steven’s personal essay about his experience is below.
In 2018, I tricked myself into losing 100 pounds by telling everyone I would backpack over 200 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The only thing was, I had never been backpacking in my life. I liked camping, but I had never spent any time in the backcountry.
As a full-time creative, I spent a lot of time looking for stories, and often, this worldview trickles from my work into my personal life. I tend to see life as a movie. I know what you’re thinking: no, it’s not. Movies are nothing like real life. They’re condensed and constructed, heightened, unrealistic, and packaged into a convenient story. Life is not convenient.
But when you start to look closer, most of our lives follow the same three-act structures as movies. First, we’re born, immediately arriving in an unfamiliar situation where our only purpose is exploring our surroundings and figuring out where we sit in the world. Next, we struggle and endeavor and drudge our way through. We grow, and we change, and we learn, and we grow tired. Towards the end, we slow down; we reflect. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we went ahead anyway. And yet here we are, looking back, realizing perhaps it wasn’t about what we did, but that we did. Life, like a movie, is all about change and growth. A story is only possible, and life is only meaningful because of change and growth.
I needed to make a change and I needed to grow. It was 2018, I had just turned 32, and I got to the highest weight my scale had ever seen. So I came up with an idea to story-ify my situation. One Saturday morning in July, I surprised my girlfriend, Rocky, by telling her I would spend a year training, with the end goal of backpacking for a month. She was shocked and excited, and we started making plans to hike the John Muir Trail—a 211-mile hike between Mount Whitney and Yosemite, stretching through some of the most beautiful scenery in all of the United States.
In storytelling, there is a concept called an “inciting incident.” It is the part of a story when the protagonist is forced into action, the place where they cannot turn back because they have committed to moving the story forward. Imagine a scene where a character faces a fence that’s too tall to climb over. Maybe the protagonist throws their hat over, forcing them to find a way over the fence.
So, I created my own inciting incident. Since I make podcasts for a living, I decided to make one about my journey. I started recording audio diaries and interviews with experts to help me get ready for the trail. I told people what I had planned. I thought having the obligation of the podcast and the accountability of friends would motivate me when things got tough, or at least, shame me into achieving my goal.
A year went by, and my inciting incident worked. I spent most days walking everywhere instead of driving, I lost 100 pounds, and Rocky and I packed our bags and left for the trail.
We kept the first days’ miles short to help prepare for what was ahead. However, the next day, my breathing was a little strained. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my fitness level, elevation, or something else. This is normal, right? Not something that derails a trip you’ve spent a year planning?
Tracing the tree line, we headed ever higher as we hiked on toward Mt. Whitney—the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. By lunch, we hadn’t hiked as many miles as we had planned. My feet were heavy and my breathing was labored as we reached Crabtree Meadow. We were 3-miles behind where we wanted to be. It was getting late. I was frustrated. Was it the altitude? Or was I just not ready? I spent a year training for this, but I’m not in charge of the altitude. I was out of breath and it didn’t matter why. I had to focus on what I had control over, how I would react in this situation.
Cruelly, at Crabtree Meadow, there’s a fork in the trail. Because of our approach route, we could bypass a small section of the JMT, skip Mt. Whitney, and continue towards the end of our trail. The only reason to summit Whitney was because we wanted to, not because we had to. And the more we looked at the situation, the more apparent it seemed skipping Whitney would be the right choice.
I had wanted to summit Whitney so badly, just imagining skipping it was painful. Would this technically be a thru-hike if we missed some miles? Would there be an asterisk next to our names on the unofficial scorecard in my brain? This wasn’t the story I wanted to tell.
One of the people I talked with for the podcast was Alexi Pappas. Since she’s both an Olympian and a filmmaker and writer, I wanted to hear her thoughts on how storytelling influenced her long-distance running. Imagining her life as a movie was something she had found helpful. “It’s a way where you’re crafting a life instead of just living,” she said.
Alexi had her own Mt. Whitney-type story. She had wanted to run her first marathon in an Olympic qualifying time. She trained and felt ready, but a third of the way into the race, Alexi realized she couldn’t run fast enough. “As a professional athlete, there’s a lot of expectation, and a lot of athletes in my position would have dropped out,” she said. Sometimes it’s better to end early, retrain, and try again instead of just finishing slower (which would require longer retraining). “The hard part was choosing to own my new goal and wear it proudly and dictate my own narrative.”
I could spend the rest of my hike wondering what it’s like standing on Mt. Whitney. I could let each day fill with regrets to the point of distraction. I could let a detour define my happiness, or I could reroute my expectations. If we’ve written the endings before we’ve lived them, we’re doomed for disappointment.
Backpacking means learning to feel multiple things at once. Walking miles to breathtaking places will cause pain in your feet. Sleeping on the floor of a tent is some of the most uncomfortable and yet restful sleep I’ve ever experienced. And that word “breathtaking” implies both a remarkable feeling of awe and pain.
I very much had my breath taken away.
Our journey forward was becoming powerfully simple. Yes, we had specific resupply deadlines, but everything in the middle was adjustable. We fell into thru-hiking’s simple rhythm of waking up, walking, eating, sleeping, repeat… A pattern that on paper might come across as mundane, but in reality, is sacred. The almost ritual repetition is monk-like, and the simple task of each day changes the goal from arriving at a location to being present for every step.