From Office Desk to Wilderness
You reach a certain age. You have a lifestyle many would envy. Still, something doesn’t feel right. Life has become routine. You sense there is more out there to experience and explore with an urge gnawing away inside to do something different. But what? Before you know it, plans have snowballed – you’ve quit your city job and flown to America to begin life living in the wilderness, walking hundreds of miles with no income. ‘The Unlikeliest Backpacker’ chronicles a British couple’s absurd journey as aspiring long-distance hikers. With Canada hundreds of miles away, they must learn to backpack and survive on the famous Pacific Crest Trail. How hard can it be? Kathryn Barnes’ entertaining memoir proves you don’t have to be special, or an experienced adventure junkie to put your life on hold, disconnecting from the modern world. Pushing personal boundaries beyond the predictability of daily routine can have surprising consequences
Wilderness Therapy on the Pacific Crest Trail
Have you ever caught a glimpse of your own reflection and for a split second failed to recognise the image staring back? How about travelling in a sea of commuters wondering if you’re the only one who wants to scream? This isn’t the you your childhood-self had imagined, right? This isn’t the you your childhood-self had imagined, right? “When I grow up” … oh, wait a minute, reality hits, you are grown up. You may not feel it. You’re certainly not where you’re meant to be.
This was me, when back in the spring of 2015, after another particularly bad day in the office, I stood waiting for a crowded Central Line train, and for a nano-second imagined throwing myself onto the tracks to shut off the constant chatter of stress and anxiety whirling inside my head. I mean, was this really it? After all the years of education, of trying – and failing – to stand out amid a competitive corporate culture of back-stabbing over-achievers, working daily unpaid overtime, shedding tears in the toilets… where had it gotten me? I was a newly married thirty-one-year-old, who was doing pretty damn well for herself from the outside. I just didn’t happen to see it that way. I felt increasingly lonely in the crowded streets of my native London. Each day played out like a predictably disappointing rehash of the last.
Does this sound familiar? Do you ever hear a voice inside beckoning you to change it all? An intrinsic tug in your gut telling you to break-away from the routine? But how?
For me personally, the train incident wasn’t even the final low. But without dwelling on my dark spiralling position in the corporate rat race, I’ll fast forward to the ‘What Kathryn Did Next’ outcome. It began with a highly sensible decision made on a beach in Dubai. Well, it seemed like a sensible plan in my desperate state, but looking back on it now it was pure lunacy! Within a matter of weeks my husband Conrad and I would throw in two stable jobs, hitting pause on our adult responsibilities, and begin studying YouTube videos on everything to do with how to survive in the wild.
Less than five months later, with no real training, carrying unused kit, we were there. Stood at a road-side trailhead, somewhere in southern Oregon. We took selfies next to the rustic Pacific Crest Trail sign. Yet the smiles masked our apprehension. I bloody hated camping after all. And the chances of being mauled by a bear or murdered in the woods at that moment seemed pretty high. The excruciatingly-painful monster packs strapped on our backs were doing nothing to help our optimism.
Weeks of swearing at each other would follow. We grew tired. Constantly hungry. Frustrated by our own physical shortcomings. We performed amateur dramatics in response to the torment inflicted by blisters and mosquitos as we scaled peak after peak. Hiking tested our relationship to the max. At many points I wondered if it were all a big mistake, one that our marriage may not survive. I would fantasise about pushing the lanky guy in the smelly green top next to me off a cliff.
Yet, despite the perceived hardships, we were actually doing it. No day was like the last, and with each summit conquered, a new set of views so epic they are now forever engrained in my soul unfolded. I couldn’t help but feel energised from spending day after day outdoors. The alpine air so refreshing I could finally breathe. Throughout the day we’d appreciate the giant blue sky gradually turning vivid shades of pink as the sun melted behind the mountains to be replaced by starlight. Despite sleeping poorly on the ground each night, we woke up alert. We discovered the stimulating effects of outdoors living; both physically and mentally.
After all, it’s only in the last couple of hundred years that so many humans have been drawn into the trap of living in large cities, working regular, organised employment. We roamed the earth for over 300,000 years beforehand. Our bodies evolved to rise with the sun, feed off the land, and acclimatise to the needs of their natural surroundings. Yet increasingly, due to modern life, we are spending more and more time living indoors. Even rickets is making a come-back!
Out in the Cascade mountains, our bodies reinvigorated themselves. Gradually we learnt to rise with the sun, crashing-out at “hiker’s midnight” (around 9 p.m.) after a physically exhausting day. The dose of vitamin D proved the ultimate tonic. And what’s more, the physical conditioning from climbing mountains felt far more rewarding than a trip to the gym. It may have been tough – brutal even – but managing to hike over twenty miles a day brought with it an unparalleled sense of accomplishment. I have never felt so alive.
Perhaps the most remarkable outcome of our adventure was the impact it had on my own mental health. I’m sure it sounds obvious, but the absence of a phone signal made me happier. It forced me to unplug. In my normal life I tend to ruminate. I live with constant head chatter, typically constructing to-do lists and beating myself up, up for failing to complete them. It’s exhausting. I never realised just how much so until I switched it off. Going cold-turkey from the scrutinising online world was the best therapy. Instead,
every day on the PCT was a simple routine: eat, sleep, hike, repeat. The hours spent focused on putting one foot in front of the other – without falling off a cliff or breaking any bones – transported us into the present. No wonder “wilderness therapy” is now an actual thing. I can firmly recommend the calming impact it has on the mind.
I learnt a lot about myself in those months living in the woods. I will forever be grateful for the many gifts the trail gave me. And amazingly, Conrad and I managed to stay married!
Sadly, I never dreamed up a life-altering long-term plan whilst out rambling in the woods, but the experience did give me the headspace to understand more fully the impact the environment has on our physical and mental well-being. I’m now on a mission to formulate a way to put this knowledge into practice. Even if it begins with simply leaving my phone at home for a daily walk in the park with our enlarged family of three.
Thank you, Kathryn Barnes and Love Books Tours.
About the author
Aspiring writer, entrepreneur… adult. The one vocation Kathryn has successfully nailed so far is Daydreamer. Her varied ambitions and overall life trajectory has taken a bit of a turn of late. A born-and-bred Londoner, Kathryn is discovering there is more to life than the corporate rat race. It began with a six-month trip through South America whetting her travelling wanderlust, which led to the decision to quit her job as a management consultant.
More recently she upped the adventure ante, swapping city life for the wilderness, on an ambitious walk hundreds of miles along America’s Pacific Crest Trail. The plan raised eyebrows from all who knew her – an uncharacteristic leap for a girl who refuses to sleep on the floor. The results were both brutal and awe-inspiring.
Kathryn has never been an ‘outdoorsy’ person. But the simple, reflective, time spent in the natural environment left a deep imprint. She still (reluctantly) resides in London, but the mountains are calling. She may even camp again. Someday.
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