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Don’t Call It a Vacation: Reflecting on the Value of a Career Break Spent on the Trail

More than just a walk in the woods, taking time off to tackle a thru hike provides the perfect mid-career mental boost.

Jen Datka Dialogue mt whitney

If you enjoy spending time in the great outdoors, you know that nothing beats the simple pleasures you can find in forests, deserts, and craggy mountain landscapes. Skipping through alpine meadows, watching shy spotted fawns scamper through your campsite, kicking back in natural hot springs, sipping mugs of hot cocoa around the campfire, and waking refreshed with the sunrise each morning. These are the moments that make each camping trip so memorable and make it worthwhile to give up a few creature comforts for a weekend.

Things look quite different when you graduate from short trips in the backcountry to a long trail that can take weeks or even months to complete. While I did get to skip through a meadow or two on my four-week sabbatical, a few other memories loom even larger in my mind from my thru-hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT):

  • Long climbs of 2,000-3,000 feet in elevation gain almost every day to reach the tops of mountain passes, often at high altitude, where the lack of oxygen sometimes left me nauseous and gasping for breath
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation when I passed few other hikers during the day and camped alone at night for days on end
  • Wondering what on earth I had been thinking when I signed on to tackle this difficult trail and its rugged, unforgiving terrain

My last day on trail was the hardest and scariest by far. The endpoint of the JMT is the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States. As I began climbing the endless switchbacks toward the summit, I noticed the wind beginning to pick up. It continued to get worse as I ascended, and I frequently had to stop and brace myself against the rocks to withstand the stronger gusts. For safety, I joined up with three other hikers and we carefully continued upwards together.

Near Trail Crest (elevation 13,650 feet), we reached a junction with the Mount Whitney trail, and had the option to turn left and hike the final two miles toward the summit (and true end of the trail), or simply cross over the pass and begin descending the mountain towards the trailhead at Whitney Portal. At this point, we were facing winds of at least 50 mph that whipped sand and small pebbles into our eyes and mouths and made breathing–let alone walking–almost impossible. We didn’t even consider attempting to summit and began hiking down the other side of the mountain when the wind let up enough to let us continue moving. While it was a significant disappointment to end the trail without reaching the top of Whitney, it was the right choice in those conditions. At the time, I was just happy to reach Whitney Portal in one safe, if somewhat shellshocked, piece.

In short, this was not a vacation – it was WAY better. I came away with

  • Mental Clarity: After about 10 days on the trail, my mind felt fresh and clear, and I began to be flooded with ideas. I jotted down pages of notes on my phone, everything from to-do lists, ways to stay better organized, and thoughts on staying happy, healthy, and productive when I returned to real life.
  • Resolute Strength: I thought about quitting the trail so many times. For the most part, I couldn’t really say I was having fun on the trail, so why on earth was I doing this to myself? But deep down I knew that I didn’t want “I quit” to be my JMT story. The trail could be unforgiving, but at the same time, it helped me cultivate my resolve and determination, even in circumstances that were frequently among the most frustrating, tedious, and difficult I could remember facing.
  • Confidence: The night before I set out on the trail, I was terrified. Was I actually ready for a hike of this magnitude? I wasn’t sure. But the days passed, and I didn’t run out of food, fuel, or water. I stayed warm at night, and my gear stayed dry through hail and rainstorms. I had everything I needed to make a few gear repairs and tend to minor medical needs, and the resupplies I sent to myself all went exactly as planned. My feet carried me over 13,000-foot mountain passes and tricky river crossings, and my spirit carried me even higher. By the end I knew that I never should have doubted myself.

I returned to work feeling like I was ready to tackle any challenge. I will cherish the memories I made on the John Muir Trail for the rest of my life, and will gracefully accept the title of “badass” when anyone attaches it to my name.

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