The hiker’s groove. Every hiker knows the feeling. It’s that point on the trail where everything just clicks. When your pack is feeling balanced and comfortable. When breaking down and setting up the camp seems as natural as skipping stones on still water. When the trail finally starts feeling like an extension of your stride.
Jess and I talked at length about the point along the trail that we thought we would finally feel the hiker’s groove. We imagined it would be the second week, after we had become accustomed to our gear, the aches and the pains of the trail, cooking meals out of a pot and eating from a ziplock bag. We knew that the first week on the trail would be difficult, that our bodies would be adjusting and we’d be endlessly complaining about the things that we had missed from our regular lives, but we knew that the groove would be coming, and when it did, that would be when the trail and hiking would become like second nature.
I’ve discussed with a number of regular hikers since completing the JMT, and each one mentioned at some point in our conversation there came a point when everything clicked. When the gear on your back became unnoticeable. When setting up camp was just a routine that you went through, and the temporary home you set up every night was just the same puzzle you put together a thousand times. It was this sense that you belonged on the trail, that you were home and that this was your existence, if only for a little bit.
I yearned for that feeling. It was unfamiliar to me in my previous hikes when porters set up camp and cooked your food for you every night. Kilimanjaro and the Incan Trail were only a week long so we never had the opportunity for a second week. Kilimanjaro and the Inca Trail were difficult and challenging in their own ways, but I never felt that groove.
The groove was definitely not there the first night we camped before starting the trail.
I felt clumsy setting up my tent. It was only the second time I had used my tent and gear since receiving most of it at Christmas the year prior and purchasing most of the rest of it before the hike. I wasn’t sure what pieces fit into where, or how hard to press into the rods and ends in order to get them to fit together. That first night in Yosemite Valley I actually had to ask Jess for help in order to make sure I was doing everything correctly. Maybe it was the nerves of starting it all, or the inexperience with new gear in an unfamiliar terrain, but I wanted to experience the hiker’s groove where it all made sense.
The first few days on the trail are funny. The majority of the conversations seem to be centered around the proper placement of the gear in your pack. Where the bear canister goes, if it should be at the top of your pack with the sleeping bag underneath so that the weight is centered more around your shoulders, or at the bottom of your pack so your lower back can carry the weight. It’s about balance. Where it fits on your hips as you trek along mile after mile, elevation gain after elevation gain. Not too much weight pulling at your shoulders, otherwise you’ll lose feeling.
We all lost feeling in one place or another.
Setting up camp the first few days was a constant learning experience. How much of a slant was too much to sleep on (No slant is worth sleeping on)? Was sleeping on a nice lump of grass just as comfortable as sleeping on just dirt or rock (Flat dirt is preferred, grass can feel clumpy)? When you broke out your tent was it easier to just lay it all out on the ground at once and figure it out as you went along, or should you be placing the poles in as you maneuver around to make it easier (Lay it out and start with the poles)? All of these questions were just learning experiences along the way. Things that you slowly figured out and pieced together until suddenly, before you even realized it, they became like second nature.
During the first few days, from Yosemite Valley until we crossed over our first pass, Donohue, there were constant readjustments. In the beginning, I kept my bear canister at the top of my pack, with the sleeping bag packed at the bottom, and closed shoved in along the sides wherever they would fit. I constantly had all of my water carrying devices full at the beginning of each hike. That included my camel pack and both Nalgene bottles on either side. The poles I strapped to the side of the sleeping bag, which was secured at the bottom of my pack by a couple of straps I had down there.
At the end of each day while setting up camp, I clumsily fulled around with my poles. Awkwardly putting one end into the other, unsure about which end was the right one, and setting up the tent wherever it seemed to make sense. There was no routine, no method to the madness, and generally took much longer than was necessary. The same could be said for when we broke camp in the morning.
Eventually, everything shifted into place.
By the 4th day, I had rearranged my pack to place the bear canister at the bottom and the sleeping bag up top. The poles that were strapped to the tent bag went into the side pocket of my pack, the camel pack went from being forced inside the pack to hanging by a makeshift hook on the outside so as to clear up space. The weight distribution made sense. It molded to my back, and when it was resting on my hips during the long days it felt like nothing was even there.
Breaking down and setting up camp became like clockwork. I was a machine. Where it once took 30 minutes to break down and set up turned into 15 minutes. The rods and inserts seemed like second nature and everything went perfectly into place without any assistance. Everything had a place in the portable home on our backs and I knew exactly where each item was when needed.
I think one of the biggest revelations was the idea to leave what I was having for lunch on top of the pack so that when I opened it during our lunch break it was right there and nothing else needed to be pulled out. No more scattered gear, sleepwear lying out needing to be repacked. It was all systematic.
All of this didn’t occur overnight though. Jess and I were right in our predictions before starting the trail, it was just prior to our second week on the trail when everything seemed to click. The aches and the pains seemed like they had always been there. There was always the achiness and shaking off the cobwebs in the morning, but by 9:30 a.m. everything was working like a fine-tuned machine. Our legs synchronized with the trail, our eyes peering downwards into the fine dust of the trail, our packs like natural shells on our back.
The hiker’s groove is surreal. It’s interesting to experience it because it doesn’t take you by surprise as much as it slowly becomes a part of you. If anything, once you are in it you almost forget about the insanity of it all. The fact that you are just going to be walking day after day, carrying your home from plot to plot in the middle of this beautiful wilderness, miles away from your previous semblance of life. It’s a rush that when it’s there it doesn’t come over you like a tidal wave, but settles in like a calm creek calm lake.
The first morning before we stepped foot on the trail I imagined what the groove would feel like once fully on the trail, and anxiously awaited for when it would finally come to me.