Things I Love about Walking Long Distances

You don’t have to be a thru-hiker to notice some surprising physical and psychological benefits of walking.  Some of the most magical effects of traveling on your own power include:

You sleep better.  One of my friends on the Appalachian Trail once said, “My favorite part of the day is when I get in my sleeping bag.”  Okay, maybe she meant that she was tired of hiking, but the sleep you get after being active all day is unbeatable.  Endorphins not only make you happier during the day, they help you sleep better.

You see more.  When you’re walking, you’re more likely to notice bugs, plants, migrating birds, unexpected roadside art, vistas.  You can walk many places you can’t drive, or even bike, such as hiking trails or local park paths and alleyways.  On a long-distance trek, you’ll see the in-between parts of America that you would normally never give a second glance, the roadside diners and strange country stores.  You’ll have time to look for the scenic route in small trails or less-trafficked roads.

You waste less.  Obviously, walking is a win for the environment compared to driving, but you’ll also save money.  In addition to eliminating the need for gas money, walking is its own entertainment and will provide a vacation in itself without expensive attractions.  When traveling by car, time in transit feels wasted.  But traveling by foot, the means is the end.  In a way, your time is used more meaningfully as well.

You build confidence.  Walking long distances and/or on tough terrain definitely makes you physically stronger.  But you gain mental strength as well.  It’s empowering to be able to get where you want to go using only your own body.  And if you can climb that huge mountain in the rain by yourself with a duct taped shoe, what can’t you do?

You have interesting interactions with strangers.  I have always been surprised by the amount of friendliness I have seen when walking to my destination.  People will want to share a meal or conversation just because you have an interesting story.  From my experience, being in a car makes us want everything to happen instantly,  but when you are putting in a lot of effort to get somewhere, a break for a chat is more welcome.  From waitresses to fellow backpackers to Airbnb hosts (some of whom make great conversationalists and some less so), you’ll probably meet some people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.

You become more mindful.  Slowing down gives you plenty of time to reflect. If you’re alone you can think, meditate, sing, or truly enjoy music. If you’re with a friend, long walks are the perfect time for uninterrupted, fluid conversation.  Carrying your belongings also brings an opportunity to be mindful about what you bring and what you truly need.  Most importantly, I’ve always found I feel more grounded in my connection with my body and its relationship to the world.

Walking Around Puget Sound: Part 2

This is part 2 of this little story.  For part 1, click here.

img_20161125_090824The first day, google maps estimated I would walk 25 miles to get to my first Airbnb host.  I was still thinking in hiking terms, so I started at 6AM thinking there was no way I’d finish before dark.  It was strange walking around with a backpack in the dark.  I couldn’t tell if people in Seattle thought I was homeless or just walking very far home from a bus.  Eventually, though, I started to see people putting out signs for their coffeeshops or walking their dogs.  As I got closer to the water, I saw people with rollerboard suitcases obviously just off a boat of some kind and fishermen drinking hot chocolate under a shelter.  Getting out of the city center was a little strange, but eventually I found a bike path into West Seattle and got to the ferry dock.

I chose to take a route down Vashon Island because it looked closer to the coast, which usually means more scenic… right?  The ferry to Vashon was leaving in 20 minutes when I got there.  I walked past a bunch of cars and waited in a room with one high school age girl to board the ferry on foot.  I went out on deck to look at the water.  Amazingly for Seattle this time of year, the sun was out and the water was sparkling.  Seagulls were everywhere.  I stood in the wind for a while and then went inside to read my accidentally relevant book, Sarah Canary, which takes place, largely on foot, around Puget Sound.

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When I got to Vashon Island, a man who had been standing next to me on the ferry dock offered me a ride into “town” (which obviously would have defeated the purpose of this trip).  My Airbnb host was texting me offering potential routes.  So far, everyone was being much nicer than expected.  I decided to walk along the coast as long as possible before rejoining the main highway.  I walked along some beautiful beaches and some vineyards which were closed for the season.  I soon saw what everyone meant by “town.”  It was a small, beachy town center with endearing public art and lots of boutiques.  I stopped at a cafe, where I got a hard cider and charged my phone.  My host offered a route hiking through the forest on the island to her house, but I decided to stick with the highway route because I didn’t want to leave the coast yet.

Whatever the other route was like, the small highway did not disappoint.  I had been walking on sidewalks or bike paths up to this point, but now I was on a broad shoulder of a country road.  It was a beautiful combination of beach-town and rural, with VW vans with crazy paint jobs, run-down shacks on beaches, and countless farmstands. I saw this awesome statue of Cool Gary, who is apparently a local legend.

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By the end of the day, I was getting a little tired and leaning against a yacht club fence to take a break.  Still, I hiked my 25 miles before 3PM and arrived at my host’s house.  My hosts were an older couple who provided some welcome conversation and friendliness and their secluded rural home.  They even treated me to dinner because I had no other real means of getting hot food.  I fell asleep at 9:00 and slept for 10 hours, happy to be in a bed after a hard day.

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Walking Around Puget Sound: Part 1

I love walking.  I think it is the most underrated form of transportation.  Of course I love hiking, but it doesn’t have to be a predetermined trail or instagram-worthy trip to merit a walk.  Whenever possible, I walk to where I am going, even if it involves carrying groceries two miles or walking 3 hours to a concert venue.  My whole life, I have been asked incredulously, “You walked here?”  This last summer, I hiked the 2189 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and it was one of the happiest times of my life, because being perpetually on foot changes the way you see the world, and the way it sees you.

As a thru hiker (a word for someone who hikes a long trail all in one go), you become familiar with the concept of “trail magic,” where strangers help you out for no reason other than that you are on a journey.  You get tons of free food, free beer, a free shower or stay in someone’s house.  Strangers want to help you, because by walking you make yourself vulnerable.  You work so much for every meal and place to sleep, and give up a lot of freedom.

At the same time, you become more aware and grateful.  You notice small sights you would never see even on a bike.  You become incredibly affected by circumstances, whether they be weather or a stranger’s kindness, and learn to appreciate them more.  What does a free ride mean when you could call an Uber?  What does the sun mean when you can go indoors at any time?  By putting yourself at the mercy of outside forces and surrendering some kinds of freedom, you become humble and at the same time incredibly free.

And so, as a recovering thru-hiker, I thought I would do a little.  I told my coworkers and friends, “maybe I’ll walk to Olympia this holiday weekend.” (A one hour drive from where I live in Seattle.) They all responded in some way like: “Can you really do that?” “By yourself?  Aren’t you worried about getting murdered?” “Where will you stay?” and eventually some version of “No one really does that, but I guess I don’t see why you can’t….”

So the day before, I found some somewhat arbitrary Airbnb stops for around $50 each, basically did no other planning, and packed my AT backpack with a bunch of impractical things like extra sweaters, a hardcover book, a pound of blackberries, and a stuffed pink otter.  Then in the morning, I walked out my door and followed google maps toward Olympia.

You can read part 2 of this series here!