Book Review: The Trail Life: How I Loved It, Hated It, and Learned from It by Julie Urbanski

Julie Urbanski walked from Mexico to Canada, through PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) with his then boyfriend (now husband). She wrote a book about that 4300 km walk that took them 109 days. The book is about their journey, emotions, hardships and emotional challenges that this kind of undertaking always involves. These kind of travels are really fascinating since, unlike polar expeditions, they are accessible to everyone and do not involve hazards such as ending up in a polar-bear’s lunch plate or finding a place to chill for eternity in the middle of snow and ice.

Don’t get me wrong. These kind of travels are tough. A lot tougher than an ironman. While an Ironman lasts for 16 hours maximum, the trail takes on average 120+ days and therefore introduces totally new set of challenges. Each morning you wake up, gather your tent and stuff, wear your 20-30 kg backpack, start walking and try to get as far as possible before the suns sets. No matter it’s raining, no matter that you’d like to eat something else than those damn cereal bars, no matter how you feel when you wake up. You have to be really tough to make it through – in PCT 300 people start each year and only half of them make it to the end. You have to get over your everyday emotions and just move forward. In that sense it is like creating a startup, except there is also monotony, boredom and loneliness.

Do I see myself hiking that track? No. I just cannot see myself taking 4 months off in any (neither near nor mid-term) future. I would probably two a few two-weekers in the following years. This book was definitely a motivation-boost for me.

I know one Estonian girl who has thru-hiked that trek. She is very modest and does not want to speak about her experience publicly (she has taken down her blog, too). Fortunately, Julie Urbanski has written a book about her experience. And a rather good one. She manages to describe the inner (and outer) fights she had during the journey, the ups and downs of emotions and what she learned from it. If you ever want to test yourself, then go do PCT or some other similar track. But read Julie’s book first before you buy the tickets. 🙂

Here are my notes:

  • The most difficult part about practicing humility is also taking in the realisation that we cannot control everything. There are going to be times when no matter what we do, we cannot swing the outcome of a situation. All we can do is swing our reaction to that outcome. We cannot stop the rain from coming down on us, nor can we keep our tent from getting soaked under constant downpour. But we can adjust our attitude in those difficult times and do our best to keep our minds positive and keep all our other gear dry.
  • It was the strangest phenomenon that people should actually care about our methods, and care so much that they had the confidence in their own methods to tell us we were doing it all wrong. I had heard the “hike your own hike” advice so often, but wondered if others actually believed it, or if they added on the caveat, “As long as it’s not too different from my own hike.”
  • “Hike you own hike” could just as well be titled “Live Your Own Life”. Look around and it’s easy to see that there is no one way to live a life. If there were, how boring would that be? Part of the excitement in life is knowing that our lives are our own to mold, to shape, and to change. We’re able to choose our own path, to be ok with going our own way, even if it means being far off course from the norm. As long as our course does not lead to a path of destruction for other peoples’ courses, the greater good could benefit from the individuals being given the freedom to create the most enjoyable, fulfilled lives. I hope we never lose the freedom to choose how to live.
  • I’m almost ashamed of those moments of misbehavior when I reflect back on them. The only reason I’m willing to admit to them is because I have actually learned important lessons from them. I have learned that I’m choosing to react negatively to situations, that I’m blaming outside factors for my own shortcomings, and that I still have a choice regarding my own happiness. In my mind, the lesson of choosing happiness is the hardest lesson to fully see and to fully realize it’s worth and ability to extend to every part of life. Choosing happiness involves taking a step back from the details directly in front of us in order to see the picture as a whole.
  • I also learned to accept the fact that I was full of myself and creating my own unhappiness. I was taking an act that was so simple, walking, and turning it into a soap opera in my head. I cried in defeat and yelled in anger because I couldn’t handle the act of putting one foot in front of the other. The trail never had it in for me. All I had to do was walk and deal with whatever was ahead of me, knowing to expect the unexpected. looking back, I’m surprised there weren’t trail police ready to kick me off the trail for bad behavior.
  • As we sat there and waited for the noodles to boil, I took a deeper look at myself. It hit me that while Optimist remained focused on the moment, all I wanted to do was get through the moment without taking in any of it. I was always hoping the next moment would be better. Yet every time I actually reached the highly-awaited moment, dissappointment would set in because the moment was no more special than the last.
  • I could see that the only way to make the situation better, more livable and more enjoyable, was to make choices that led to alleviating the situation rather than shoving my discomforts back into my face. I chose the former over the latter, and that is how I made it through three straight days of rain in Washington.
  • The ultimate lesson I learned on the entire Pacific Crest Trail is that I have a choice when it comes to my happiness. No one else can choose it for me, and no one is making me choose either way. The decision is mone to make, the reaction is my own, and my attitude is in my control.
  • Happiness is not given and it is not found, but rather, it’s chosen. You always have a choice.
  • When was the last time you willingly headed straight forward, full-speed ahead, into the unknown? I doubt the answer is, “Each and every day.” There is still so much I don’t know about myself, about others and about life. While it’s intimidating, it’s also exciting. Life is not finished. I am not finished. I have many more adventures ahead of me, and so many more lessons to learn.
  • Whatever your point A and point B may be, be sure to pay attention and pick up on what’s going on in the middle, because that is where the lessons are learned and lived. It is where we make our choices. It is where life happens.
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