“The most adult thing you can do is failing in what you really care about.” (Unicorn Store, 2017).
Upon my completion of the Arizona Trail a few weeks ago, I was flooded with texts, Instagram comments and even phone calls from some of my closest friends and family congratulating me on my accomplishment. On all my previous thru-hikes, this overwhelming support, encouragement, and congratulations from friends, family and even strangers has been incredibly touching and I’ve felt so lucky to receive such kind words.
That’s not quite how I felt this time. I could not help but feel weird about the fact that everyone was congratulating me about finishing the AZT, but no one was acknowledging the fact that I failed to complete a yo-yo, my original intent when headed to Arizona last month. When talking to some people about my hike, I even brought up the fact that I failed, and was usually met with a response along the lines of, “No you didn’t! You should be proud of what you did!” This response makes no sense to me, but as I’ve started to process and resonate on failing, that lack of acknowledgment and even blatant denial of my failure from other people have actually helped put it all into perspective. My initial theory was that people weren’t acknowledging it just because in general folks are nice, they care for the emotions of people they love, and my friends and family were simply trying to spare me some pain. Putting myself in their shoes, I realized I probably would have the same sort of response to somebody who tried something really hard and did not succeed. But over the last few weeks, I’ve come to think that it’s not that simple; those people responded as such for a more important reason, one that has everything to do with the nature of failure and what it really means.
What does it really mean? It's actually harder to define than one would think. The simplest definition is just a lack of success. But, as with most things, it is not as simple as its first definition in the dictionary. I’ve been thinking about failure almost non-stop since finishing the AZT (actually probably since before I finished) and as I write this now I’m still struggling to really define what it means to me. It's just really hard to put such a difficult and uncomfortable feeling into words. I am failing to define failure, at least right now, and the irony is rich. So I am going to continue these thoughts without a real thesis -- and hope nontheless to bring some sort of solid form to what I have to say on the subject.
My mindset on the AZT was complicated on day one. Actually, it was complicated before I even left. As I made the final preparations for my attempt to set an FKT for a yo-yo of the AZT I tried to focus on going out to Arizona, hiking my hardest, and hanging my hat on whatever I was able to do. I wrote about it. I told people about it. I told myself to relax and take the pressure off my own shoulders. But it was always a facade, and it's important I acknowledge that. I wanted to set that FKT. I knew I was capable of it. I felt like doing so would push me to my limits and maximize my capabilities as a hiker. I say that it is important to acknowledge what I was truly feeling as I began my attempt because it is in that feeling that the root of my failure lies. If I had truly embraced that mindset that I intended, then I would have done exactly what I set out to do on this hike -- whatever I was able to. But I wasn’t in that headspace. I did want the yo-yo. And I did not do it. There is the failure.
Another thought I’ve had on why people tend to respond to my declarations of failure with a step in the other direction is that they don’t think I am taking any positives from my experience in Arizona. It's actually quite the opposite. Despite its being my shortest thru-hike to date by about 1500 miles (I’m not counting the JMT because that was basically part of my PCT thru-hike), I probably learned more on this hike than on any others. I am tremendously grateful to the incredibly difficult trail that induced my failure because in doing so it showed me so much about myself. I was taught new lessons and retaught old lessons.
The biggest plus I got out of this failure was having my ambition checked. I came off the PCT last year on cloud-fucking-nine as far as my own confidence in my hiking ability went. I planned on hiking that trail in about five months and ended up doing it in under four. I was crushing 35-plus-mile days for the last thousand miles. I breezed through the Oregon two-week challenge with little difficulty. I averaged 30 miles per day on the entire second half of the PCT. All of these accomplishments are really what got the idea of an FKT in my head for the AZT. I had decided I wanted to thru-hike it sometime in the High Sierra, and as the PCT hike continued my idea turned from a thru-hike into a yo-yo, and then into a yo-yo FKT. My ambition was out of control, a state it remained in during the offseason as I prepared for the hike. Then I set foot on trail.
Very early on this hike, it became apparent that there were a lot of things that were not in my control, and I was just going to have to accept that. One of the cool things about thru-hiking is that it's given me more confidence than anything else. I’ve never been a very confident person, but when I’m out there cruising those 35-plus-mile days it just makes me feel like a superhero. What’s humbling about a thru-hike is that the trail will give you those big days, and it’ll give you those weeks where you push 250 miles, you’re beating your PR’s, you’re feeling invincible, and then within a day it will shut you down. That’s what happened to me on the AZT.
It beat the hell out of me. I straight-up got my ass kicked for 25 days. The easiest factor to point out is the incredible amounts of snow Arizona got this winter. I don’t want to discount that as it was easily the most intense snow and winter backpacking I’ve ever done. But I also don’t want to discredit all of the other factors of the AZT that piled on, eventually forcing me to wave the white flag in Utah at the end of the trail.
I contacted the AZT in January to tell them of my FKT intentions. They responded to me and were very friendly and encouraging (shout out to the AZT for all they do!) The man who wrote back did mention, however, the level of difficulty of the AZT, and how most thru-hikers considered it their hardest thru-hike upon completion. I remember reading this, acknowledging it, and not really changing anything about my preparation. Ego. It can give you confidence, but usually it just makes you an idiot. Anyways, I can now include myself in the club of thru-hikers who consider the AZT to be the toughest trail they’ve hiked.
The trail is very wild. It is not as new, as popular or as well-maintained as the big long-distance trails like the AT and PCT. It literally physically abused me. My legs were constantly getting destroyed by scratchy, sharp branches reaching over the trail like jaws. My knees and ankles were swollen and stiff every day from the steep, rocky descents. My skin was blistered from the constant UV rays that no amount of sunscreen could fight off. The point is, the snow was absolutely the hardest part of the AZT and a huge reason why I made the decision to end in Utah. But there were many other factors. The AZT checked my ambition and humbled me entirely. For that, I am so grateful. And that kind of brings me to what I’ve really been thinking about for a while now, pretty much since the moment I knew I was going to end early and, thus, to fail.
As a young man at my peak physical potential, full of energy and ability in regards to my goals, I need to savor my failures ten times more than my successes. I tasted success in thru-hiking three times by the age of 23, and twice more on my cross-country bicycle tours. The finishing moments of all of those journeys will forever be some of my most special memories. The sensation of accomplishment after dedicating 100 percent of your efforts to one goal for so long a time is indescribable. For months, every moment of your life, every action, is in pursuit of one goal. Achieving it gives a high unlike any other. But those successes, while worthy of celebration and enjoyment, aren’t meant to be wallowed in. A few weeks after a successful thru-hike, the post-trail funk sets in, and you find yourself missing the trail and your life on it. Give it a year, and many hikers find themselves still trying to relive their previous thru-hike, too scared to move on to the next challenge. It is easy to get stuck in a success.
Failure, on the other hand, should be warmly embraced. I have sat in the biggest failure of my life for the last three weeks. It has been incredibly difficult. I think about the last few days of my hike all the time. I think about where I would have been if I had turned around at Utah. I think about how sure I had been that I would succeed. I think about how devastated I was when I didn’t. I relive the tears I shed out there all the time. I am living in my failure, and it is so hard but so necessary. It has bred within me a fierce desire to get back out there. Success doesn’t do that. At my age, now in the crossroads of my hiking career, failure is absolutely what I needed. So I don’t want to deny it. I don’t want to brush it off. I want to expose it, live inside of it, and use it the way it is meant to be used. My success on the PCT got the better of me, pushing me towards a goal that I didn’t fully think through, ending with a pretty miserable thru-hike, much different from the absolute joy I’ve experienced on thru-hikes past. But now, I can get the better of my failure, and use it to motivate me to continue challenging myself while maintaining a more grounded ego and pursuing my goals with the humility that is required to truly find success in them.
Taking lessons from failure is not a particularly revolutionary idea. I am certainly not the first person to posit most of the thoughts I’ve put forward in this. So why, then, have so many people told me that I didn’t fail, seemingly denying me all the value I can take from my failure? Because that’s what it is -- it is my failure. From an outsider’s perspective, all I did was thru-hike the Arizona Trail, a pretty cool thing to do! I’d imagine within a few months most of my friends will forget what I had originally intended to do; they will simply remember that I went on a hike in Arizona in 2019. And within a few years, most will probably forget that I even did that. Just as successes are our own, so are our failures. No one else can experience the disappointment I did. No one else can know the pain I feel in my failure. But also, no one else can take those lessons from it. It is my failure, so the fact that I am basically the only one who has acknowledged and accepted it is OK. And just as I am proud of my success, I am proud of my failure. No one can take any of my accomplishments away from me, and I’ll be damned if they take away any of my failures.