Lessons learned on the John Muir Trail

by | Jun 7, 2016

In 2014, I stepped away from my desk, put on my backpack, and set out alone to walk 227 miles through the Sierra Nevada of California along the John Muir Trail. On day 15 on the trail I made a mental list of the unexpected lessons the trail had taught me as I trudged up 13,118’ Forrester Pass. THIS is what my time wandering in the mountains taught me:


Photo by Erica Ruch

You’ll never regret waking up before the sun.
There’s a reason dawn is known as the “Magic Hour”. The animals are out and about, the air is crisp and dewy, and the light…oh, the light…is awe-inspiring.


Photo by Erica Ruch

Everyone is friendly above 5000 feet.
I’d once heard someone use this saying to comfort a nervous solo hiker, and it’s proved to be incredibly true. I started the hike alone and finished with an inspiring group of new friends. I’ve met more great people in the middle-of-nowhere than I ever have in bars in the city.


Photo by Erica Ruch

Not taking a shower never felt so good.
With lakes and rivers abounding around every bend in the Sierras, there’s nothing better than a reason to go for a swim.


Photo by Erica Ruch

Knowing what day of the week it is is entirely overrated.
After about three days on the trail, I usually forget what day of the week it is. The day of the week becomes an entirely useless piece of otherwise relevant information in the wilderness, and it feels so good to lose that sense of time.


Photo by Erica Ruch

Looks truly don’t matter.
You’re not going to look cool. When in the mountains for weeks, appearances go out the window. Functionality, comfort, and safety trump appearance every time. It’s inevitable you’ll look like a disaster, and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Anyone you run into is going to look just as disheveled as you do.


Photo by Erica Ruch

What goes up, must go down….and then will eventually go way way up again.
The John Muir Trail gains over 46,000 feet of elevation over its 200+ mile course. That is a daunting amount of walking uphill. There were some incredibly long and tiring climbs on that trail, and sometimes my only solace was reminding myself that eventually I would have to reach the top, and from there it would be downhill. Yet, for every pass climbed, there was a taller and tougher one waiting just miles down the trail.


Photo by Erica Ruch

A bad day on the trail is still better than most good days at the office.
Rain, hail, lightning, cold, exhaustion, sore muscles and feet – it’s not an adventure without it. Even in the misery of some moments on the trail, I can take a step back and remind myself that the alternative is that I could be at work like everyone else. It’s an excellent reality check.


Photo by Erica Ruch

Things are usually not as significant as they seem.
I’ve found that spending any amount of time in wild places inevitably reminds me that the place I occupy in this corner of the universe is incredibly small. My problems and worries tend to shrink and disappear, and my priorities tend to fall right into line behind what is truly important: living and experiencing life.


Photo by Erica Ruch

No one ever said it would be easy.
Nor that it wasn’t. The physical demands of the trail are obvious and expected; yet the mental strength required is more important. It can be an emotional roller coaster, and mentally exhausting at times…but always worth it.


Photo by Erica Ruch

It will be hard.
And it was.


Photo by Erica Ruch

It will be very hard.


Photo by Erica Ruch

But you only have one thing to do: walk.

You can read more about my journey on the John Muir Trail here.