Lessons from the John Muir Trail


Hiking the John Muir Trail!

Hiking the John Muir Trail!

I have been back from our backpacking trip to California for over a month now, and I have struggled with just how to share some of the most significant trip experiences on my massage therapy website.  The most direct tie-in with massage is that I desperately needed one after three weeks on the trail!  I have had the good fortune of receiving a massage a week since returning to Bellingham…what a pleasure and relief for heavily used muscles and joints. Additionally, though, the the trip was profoundly meaningful in numerous ways, and to NOT share some insightful gems would be remiss. What follows is a run-down of the top four “lessons” I learned from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), all of which undeniably apply to other areas of  my life…including the business of massage. I hope you will find something relevant to your life as well.


Lesson 1:  Focus on the simplicity of  basic needs.      

When people ask me what I enjoyed most about backpacking for three weeks, it is this: life centered down to simple things. So many of the concerns that exist in ordinary day to day life just disappeared on the trail. The issues of the day revolved around very simple and straightforward questions: how far to hike that day, where to camp, when and what to eat, how often to take breaks, where to get water, when to go to sleep and when to get up the next day. There was no traffic to fight, no firm schedule to keep, no lines to wait in, no apparent stressors aside from staying warm, dry, fed, hydrated, and reasonably well rested and comfortable. This aspect of our three weeks on the trail was very freeing. In the serene simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other, I was able to contemplate what else typically occupies my time, thoughts, and energies — much of which seems so futile when out in the wilderness. Worrying about things beyond basic needs while living a very simplified life is meaningless. I came to appreciate all the times that our needs were met…and that was enough to allow spaciousness in my thoughts and keen appreciation of the beautiful surroundings. What I DID notice, however, is that on the occasions when my basic needs were NOT met — when I was cold, tired, hungry, or in substantial physical discomfort — it was much more difficult to let my mind open up and wander, and to appreciate the beauty all around. I tended to focus on my discomforts to the exclusion of other things. By conscious intention and effort, I could still bring myself back to the peace and simplicity of being on the trail. But it was noticeably more challenging during times when, for whatever reason, my basic needs were not met as fully as I wished.

Since I have been back, this whole experience has transferred into a gratitude and appreciation for all of the simple things in my life. I still revel in a hot shower, toilets that flush, a warm and comfortable bed to sleep in, food to cook on something other than a camp stove, and fresh fruits and vegetables. I am sure in time the novelty of these things will lessen, and I will go back to feeling frustration about life’s minor things. But my pledge to myself is to continue to appreciate all the small things that life has to offer, and to recognize that all parts are worthy of a keen awareness and appreciation. It’s all part of the experience we call life, and not something that I ever want to take for granted.


Lesson 2:  Confront “Dread” mindfully, and one step at a time.  

The elevation gain and loss of the John Muir Trail can be daunting.  In 220 miles, hikers travel up and over nine passes in the Southern Sierras, a total elevation gain (and loss) of 50,000 feet. There is never a sense of “getting to the top of the mountain”…at least not until reaching Mt. Whitney’s summit, which, at 14,505 feet is the highest point in the continental US and the theoretical end of the JMT (although one still has to descend from that pinnacle!) I learned early on that the mind must adapt to the task of up and over — often some 4000 feet to gain a pass — followed by an immediate loss of elevation, and then accept the idea of doing it all over again the next day or so.  This was particularly tough while carrying a 50 pound pack, and at times, anticipating the upcoming challenge and steepness caused me great anxiety. Nervously anticipating each pass, I often wondered if I actually could do it, or if I would somehow fall short and be unable to muster the umph necessary to get up there.  I came to call this phenomenon and anxiety “Pass Dread”, after the concept of “Hill Dread” that I so often experience whilst bike riding and knowing that a steep hill is just ahead. I am not sure why these upcoming hills, on bike or on foot, cause me so much anxiety, but they do. On the JMT, I had to devise systems that allowed me to accept and cope with Pass Dread, and actually got pretty good at it. What it came down to is that I could best manage Pass Dread mindfully, one step at a time. I repeatedly asked myself “Am I OK in THIS moment…?”, and always the answer was “yes.” Being OK in one moment literally gave me confidence to move into the next, reasonably assured that I would be OK in the next as well. All nine passes, like many past (and no doubt future) endeavors in my life, were (and will be) undertaken in this fashion…One moment, one step at a time. It is no coincidence that my business name and motto is “One massage at a time”…the attention to focus on exactly what I am up to at any given time, whether the body under my hands or the trail under my feet, repeatedly allows me to stay present and do my best in every situation I encounter. The physical challenges of the JMT were very real, and calling myself back to the moment and taking it one step at a time, instead of getting caught up in fear and dread,  worked well in getting up and over time and again. Though not always easy, despite the physical effort I came to enjoy the process and necessary challenges  more often than not.

 At the top of one of many mountain passes....

At the top of one of many mountain passes….


Lesson 3:  Enjoy and celebrate the feeling of victory over your accomplishments!  

As much as I worked to enjoy the process, I also unabashedly celebrated the victory of getting there. The hard work necessary to gain the passes — and indeed, to complete the whole trail — was directly proportional to the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction I felt having finished each climb. There was never a sense of disappointment, of having not done enough. Whatever we decided to do for the day usually got done, and if that changed, it was OK too. I bring this up while reflecting on “the rest of my life”, the parts that aren’t on the trail. Like many people, I crave the feeling of accomplishment that comes from finishing a “task”…a long day at work, a hard bike ride, a blog post…anything that requires dedication, focus, and commitment. I always feel a rush of satisfaction that comes from getting the important thing done. On the trail,  accomplishments were easy to recognize and measure. We’d get to the top of the pass, to the end of each day, and finally, after 19 days, to the end of the trail. What a thing to celebrate!

Here at home, achievements tend to be less dramatically obvious and/or specific. The “to do” list never really gets all the way done. So feelings of accomplishment are often less clear, and “success” more loosely defined. I continually have to readjust to realizing how many “accomplishments” in life I have had, and realize that all successful milestones are reached in the same way…one moment and one step at a time. Experiencing the rush of having “done it” IS addictive and fuels our desire for living…but I also want to appreciate all the little daily things that get done that aren’t the JMT. I will always seek out experiences like long hikes and bike rides to achieve a deep sense of accomplishment. But I am also more acutely aware of the small things that get done daily, weekly, and, yearly. Instead of beating myself up for everything that doesn’t get done, I am trying to focus on and celebrate that which does. The process of beginning and finishing massage school was akin to a long hike with many ascents and descents….it was at times uncomfortable, challenging, risky, and unsettling. But the thrill of accomplishment, AND the fact that becoming a massage therapist has allowed me to embark on a satisfying and fulfilling career, puts it on par with completing the JMT as a “peak experience”.


Lesson 4:  Don’t let Fear of the Unknown stop you from continuing on your path. 

While we had no real threats from weather on the trail, we did have to contend with wildfires and smoke. At the midway point of our adventure, we encountered a National Park ranger on the trail, warning all hikers about the Rogue Forest fire raging nearby, all 17.000 acres of it uncontained. She informed us that there would be smoke for the duration of the trail (about 110 miles), that the visability was down to 1/4 mile at times, that there would be no helicopter rescue available in the event of an emergency, and that at least one of the exit passes from the trail was closed due to fire danger. She presented the options available to us: continue on with the trail and endure the smoke,  backtrack to a previous pass and exit, or move forward and exit early from one of the upcoming passes if the smoke got too intense.  We were surprised by and unprepared for this turn of events; weather and conditions to that point had been sunny with clear skies.  My partner and I spent the afternoon discussing our options while doing a day hike up to a high place where we could truly grasp the reality of the incoming smoke.  The undeniable presence of smoke hung in the air that afternoon, and the smoke increased substantially as the day wore on. While hiking, we analyzed all the options before us, and the factors that could and would influence any decision we made. While we both really wanted to continue on with the trail, as that is what we had come to California for, we also did not want to be foolish or put ourselves in harm’s way. Without internet access, the information we had was solely based on the ranger, what other hikers were saying and doing, and what we could see and smell. We realized that many people were making plans and reacting from FEAR (which was not necessarily unreasonable). Many hikers fled or  made plans to do so, immediately turning around and heading out previous, less smoky passes. In addition to the smoke, the air held a feeling of mild panic, as everyone was talking about the smoke and trying to figure out what to do. We listened and took it all in, but consciously chose not to get too engulfed in a fear-based mode of decision making. We decided to spend the night and re-evaluate in the morning, see what the skies looked like, and how we felt after a night of sleeping on all the information.

We awoke to clear skies, the smoke and haze from the previous evening having all but dissipated. We decided to tentatively move on, and take it a day at a time. What most strongly influenced our decision to continue was that we didn’t want to succumb to the fear. People often react to unexpected news with fear, and try to instantly get away from perceived risks that trigger that unpleasant feeling. Fire is understandably fear-inducing, and where there’s smoke there’s fire! But the JMT itself wasn’t in any fire danger, and so we cautiously and semi-optimistically packed up and moved on. The trail took on an eerie quiet over the next several days, as many hikers HAD indeed abandoned the hike. We were rewarded with an unprecedented amount of solitude on a usually very busy trail, which was both satisfying and a bit unnerving. We contemplated and queried ourselves: what if all the other hikers knew something we didn’t? But we agreed to keep going as long as we felt safe on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis. As a general pattern, the smoke would roll in during the afternoon, but clear out overnight. The views were obscured in the afternoons and evenings, by a densely hazy, f0g-like atmosphere. Yet the smoke did not affect our breathing, and it DID provide some spectacular sunsets as the sun descended bright red over the horizon each night. The hazy light reflecting off the surrounding peaks was surreal and mystical. We realized that many benefits had accrued as a result of continuing on and challenging the fear that otherwise might have caused us to abort our mission: fewer hikers, a different kind of beauty, morning views, and a deep sense of gratitude that we were able to continue.

It’s no stretch to understand how this concept — keeping on in the face of fear —  applies centrally to other areas of life. SO MANY TIMES in life I have wanted to give up (and sometimes I have) because of fear. At other junctures, I have not even given myself the chance to begin something because I feared failure. Yet life is stagnant and unfulfilling if fear keeps us from taking risks or trying new things. The takeaway lessons I learned about fear from the JMT are immensely important and will endure. I see clearly, reflecting on my past, how moving on despite fear has brought joy, satisfaction, and a sense of great fulfillment in multiple areas.  Had I not faced down the fear of returning to school to become a massage therapist later in life, I would not currently be engaged in a profession that I so love! Returning home with a heightened understanding and appreciation of the way opportunity opens up when we challenge fear has allowed me to embark on new journeys and endeavors that I was previously afraid to try. Rest assured, there is more to come on this topic.

In the meantime, Happy Trails!

At the top of Mt. Whitney

At the top of Mt. Whitney









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Kathie Tupper is a Licensed Massage Therapist and the owner of this website.