Valjean Clark

Going off-trail

At the end of my post about social shock on the PCT, I briefly described how much I enjoyed the off-trail backpacking I did in the Sierra in 2022. I also touched on the topic in my post about metricizing.

It’s strange to me now how brief that section was, because the experience of going off-trail has been life-changing for me. I know that sounds dramatic, but it truly has reverberated and grown in meaning in the months since.

When hiking off-trail, I love how many distractions fell away. No more worrying about competing for campsites or wondering how many more miles I should hike. No more wondering if I should say “hi” or “howdy” or if I should stop and chat with the other people I would encounter on the trail.

I love how it opens up the world while hiking. There are a lot of mountains in the world, but only so many trails. Suddenly, looking in the distance, I don’t just see a view, I see possibilities for future trips. Once a trail is no longer a requirement, any adventure is possible.

I love how it puts me more in touch with the landscape. I need to be more purposeful about each step. I need to scan the distance for the right approach, while being open to it not working out the way I expect when I get closer. If I see a beautiful place to stop for lunch or to camp, I can just make my way there.

Recently, it’s struck me that backpacking on and off-trail is a really good metaphor for life. This is part of why this experience has taken on added meaning for me. There are lots of trails in life. Some trails are well-trafficked, even paved, perhaps with water fountains installed along the way. Some are unmaintained, others have been forgotten altogether. And of course there are off-trail experiences in life, though there are also different types of off-trail adventures. Sometimes you have an ultimate goal along with some general waypoints in mind. Sometimes, you are truly wandering.

For much of my youth and early adult life, life was always about finding the right trail, and all I knew is that I never seemed to be on the right trail. It’s nice to realize that the trails are all just choices, and that it’s fine, even exciting, to veer off-trail to forge my own path. In a sense, I realized simply that I can go off-trail in the first place. I was so focused on finding that right trail that I never considered that I might not need a trail at all.

I shared some of these thoughts with my spouse’s friend, who remarked thoughtfully that trails can be nice too. I thought this was a good point. There are times in life when using a trail is nice, and other times when going off-trail is warranted. Sometimes you even need some trail to begin an otherwise off-trail adventure. Sometimes circumstances are difficult and you might not have the energy or resources for an off-trail adventure. And for some life experiences, using an established trail can be quite nice. Trying to go off-trail in all aspects of life sounds like it could be difficult and isolating.

This realization about off-trail travel, both in nature and in life, pairs nicely with other realizations about life that I have had recently. I feel like I got caught up in building foundations for a good life without actually thinking about what a good life even is for me. I have focused on building a career, learning new skills and roles, learning to communicate better with my spouse, understanding myself better through therapy, and living below my means for financial freedom. I believed that if I got these fundamentals right, good things would happen. And they have to an extent – lots of things are possible with a strong foundation like this in place. However, a broader sense of meaning and purpose did not emerge from all this effort. In fact, the opposite emerged – a sense of hollowness. I did everything I said I would do, said I should do… now what?

So in this moment of feeling both lost and also boxed in by my choices, it is incredibly freeing to have a realization that I can look in the distance, pick a destination, and start walking.