The days begin to merge together as we climb through the dry, barren hills of southern California. The scenery is beautiful, but the views are less inspiring than those we beheld from San Jacinto.
Have I become jaded to the scenery? Will only the most epic vistas capture my attention from here on out? I question if this fickleness is the problem with humanity – this need to be endlessly amused, and entertained.
I move on from the thought, as do my feet, and I welcome the sand under my soles. The tranquil scenery allows my mind to wander and my feet to dig in. I’m on autopilot. As my feet takeover I can relax and enjoy the ride. My mind is in the backseat tending to other matters.
As we’ve switched to spending more days on trail than in traditional society, I’m grappling with a startling realization: society does not feel optimized for me. But not just me, any of us. Modern society is full of comforts, and ease. But it has not been optimized to make us healthier, happier humans.
Instead, we live in a world optimized for machines. Cities are built to fit cars into every corner, making them unsafe and unappealing for walking. Our health declines due to inactivity, because we’ve engineered activity out of our culture.
Social media sites plug us into data categories to more easily feed into algorithms, and sell our attention off to strangers. Meanwhile we’re not brought any closer to friends, family, or community. Our knowledge of their activities may expand like that of a voyeuristic neighbor. But knowledge is not connection nor relation. We are divided and isolated more than ever.
I cannot help but feel as if our culture is making us unhappy, and often sick. Thru-hiking provides an opportunity to step back and examine culture from a different vantage point. Today, the view makes me sad.
I look back to the trail as we climb up, further to get a higher vantage point. We will climb approximately 4,000 ft today in 10 miles. My bag is full of food and the climb burns my legs as we surpass 6,000 ft of elevation. As the air thins, the push becomes harder.
Your body takes time to acclimate to higher altitudes. We meet a hiker who’s been having trouble sleeping at altitudes of 8,000 ft or more, because he doesn’t feel like he can get enough oxygen. One reason for this is yes, the air is thinner. But also, as the pressure decreases, your blood cells have more difficulty letting go of oxygen. In response, your body increases production of a substance called 2,3 BPG which actually allows blood cells to loosen their grip on oxygen, therefore allowing them to deliver oxygen more effectively.
Nature may not have been optimized for us, but we sure seem to be optimized for it. The wilderness can be a dangerous place, but we have been optimized to survive it.
We hike through burned forests where the soil has turned to dust. We fill water at a stream, tired and tempted to set camp. But we will not setup in a burn, even when waters running. The dirt in the burnt forest is too often fine and easily blown around with the slightest breeze. It puffs out from under foot, and irritates the eyes.
Instead we hike several miles on and set camp at the last water supply for 16 miles. There’s a dirt road and some picnic tables. We setup camp here and cook in luxury. The hikers next door invite us too their camp fire. We stop by to chat for awhile, meeting Smooth, Luke, and Puffy the Trail Slayer. Puffy arrives late just as the camp is darkening. He did a twenty mile day and looks exhausted. I’m impressed given the terrain.
After social hour we retire to our tent. It’s been a long gruelling day. Tomorrow will be easier.