I can no longer call backpacking my hobby. It is my passion, absorbing most of my spare time and money. Being out in the mountains for weeks or even months is a mind-blowing experience which seems to make all other things in life trivial.
So why long distance? Chris Townsend once summarized it like this: “Actually the distance doesn’t matter. What is key is time. Time to feel part of nature, time to feel the subtleties and details of a landscape, time to move slowly yet make progress and time, crucially, for backpacking to become a way of life not an escape from life. Long distance is almost a by product. Walk every day for week after week and you will cover many miles. I’ve never felt the actual distance was important. I’ve never set out to do daily big mileages; hundreds and thousands of miles accumulate with time not constantly pushing myself. Because being in the wilds, absorbing the intricacies of nature, listening to the wind, hearing echoes of the past in the rocks, observing flowers and insects and birds are all important I want to have the time to pause and look and listen whenever something beckons or seems interesting. Backpacking is not a race. I don’t want a schedule that says I have to walk ten or more hours a day with few if any halts and no time to enjoy the camping side of backpacking. I think backpacking is about living in nature not streaking through it.” Only after weeks, and only with many weeks of backpacking still ahead, the last notions of daily worries disappear, and all is put into perspective. Eventually there is nothing but the walk. You wake up with it, you go to sleep with it, you breath it.
Besides, I need the feeling of walking something, from point A to point B, to geographically accomplish something. In the past, I’ve made a few walks where I thoroughly explored a certain area by making lots of loops, but after some time the drive to keep going started to fade. Thru-hiking the length of a mountain chain is an overwhelming feeling, fueling body and soul with infinite energy.
My first major backpacking trip was the crossing of the Pyrenees, from Atlantic to Mediterranean. I had just become 20 years old and had never traveled solo before. I had no more than 25 days of serious backpacking experience, yet I planned a route which out-numbered all existing described trans-pyrenean walks in terms of length, denivellation (nearly 60km of climbing) and technical difficulty. I carried a 3kg 2-person tent all the way, and the base weight of my backpack was over 14kg. To most of my friends and not in the least my parents, the plan appeared to be an extremely masochistic suicide attempt. But I was convinced I could do it and gave it a try. I became by far the most moving and eye-opening experience so far in my life. As the weeks passed, a seemingly unconquerable mountain chain changed it face to a vast playing ground, and I felt my body and mind grow stronger by the kilometer. By the time I finished, I felt at home in the mountains, and I felt I had to repeat it. Now five years later, my Pyrenees trek is still the major landmark in my life at which I look back with pride and joy.
I returned to the mountains every year for many weeks, but never had the same mind-blowing feeling of a real thru-hike again. Plans of crossing Scandinavia have crossed my mind for years. This huge peninsula comprises the last real wilderness one can find in Europe. As a student I could not just take 4 months off. As a PhD student I can, thanks to generosity of my supervisor. I’ve spend days pouring over maps, tracing possible routes, choosing between them, and letting the affection with the area grow in my mind. I’ve spend days in front of my computer screen, sending dozens of emails searching for contacts to arrange food drops and logistics. Like always, I’ve enjoyed the planning a lot, but I’m also glad the real thing is now rapidly coming closer.
A walk like this one cannot make every year. Besides practical and social limitations and the planning of it which takes a year of sustained work on its own, the mental rollercoaster of a long thru-hike is too intense to ride too often. But this feels like the right moment.
And finally, from a more philosophical point of view… it has taken billions of years of evolution, and here we are. One of the first generations of the very first species ever to be able to travel the globe and consciously feel and experience it’s raw beauty, which might well be mostly destroyed within a few more generations by over-evolution. I would be ashamed not to make use of such a dazzling privilege.