"What my hike means to me" is probably something I'll think about nearly every day on the trail and frequently discuss with other thru-hikers. People will compare motivations and personal values and try to clarify their own views of their hike after hearing others'. Inevitably, one will be influenced in subtle ways by other hikers in the community. Some influences will seem positive, some negative. By formulating some of my thoughts beforehand, I'll have something to come back to later on and compare my expectations with the reality of my experience.
I'm 31 and have settled into a certain lifestyle, personal values, and worldview that I'm very comfortable with. My hike is not about "coming of age." It's not an epic journey, a momentous challenge, or a search for self. I'm not at a major crossroads in life, because it's normal for me to pretty much always be at a crossroads.
I don't expect to look back upon my thru-hike as being a singular event in my life, but rather as one adventure of many. I would like to integrate these adventures into my life to the point that the adventure never leaves. I want to always be looking forward to and preparing for something exciting and challenging.
I think a major goal for my hike is to achieve sustainability within the context of a major adventure. In other words, to be able to maintain a certain lifestyle with limited ill effects for an indefinite period of time. That means learning to maintain a healthy body and state of consciousness for a long period of time as I'm doing my hike. I will try to avoid sacrificing well-being for more than very short periods -- for instance, letting hygiene and nutrition slide, overstraining my body, and not getting enough rest. I don't want to view my hike as a one-time adventure where I can put important things temporarily on hold as I sprint to the finish line. I want to finish the hike in good shape and good spirits.
Part of sustainability for me is remaining mentally active and productive. If I don't, I'll crave mental activity that I can only get "in civilization." If I could take along a lightweight, solar-powered laptop, that would be ideal. I can simply practice writing by hand on whatever topics come to my mind, and do some writing or typing in town. I would like to be thinking seriously about some topics during my hike -- topics related to lifestyle, philosophy, and the natural world. I would like to integrate my adventures into my work rather than having them be a break from work.
I also want to get to know the thru-hiking community and make new friends while still "hiking my own hike" -- keeping my own pace and pursuing my own goals. Almost everyone else is going to be stopping in towns and spending money, and I think I can avoid that without feeling bad about it. In fact, being forced to do my own thing will be a positive factor, I'm sure. I feel best when I am close enough to people to form connections, while not being tied up in a group.
I also want to use this opportunity to learn about the nature of the American West -- the ecosystems and landscapes that I pass through. I'll be taking lots of pictures and probably making some videos along the way to share with other people. I'm excited to be surrounded by nature (again), and I want to be learning about it as well as basking in it.
As I hike this long distance, I want to hone my backpacking skills and learn how best to deal with the challenges I encounter. For instance, I'd like to consistently roll out of bed early and quickly and rest more during the heat of the day. I'd like to learn to deal effectively with all the challenges of hiking on the PCT. I'll be thinking about my gear and what best works for which conditions.
Since any random accident or combination of events can put one off the trail, I don't want to be too emotionally attached to the idea of finishing the hike. Only 50% who start actually finish the PCT. A month on the Colorado CDT made me aware of my potential weak spots when hiking for weeks on end: bruised feet and malnutrition. The second I think I can do much better at this time, but I still don't know how to avoid bruised feet except by trying shoes with a bit more cushioning. And I don't know if that will help. On the CDT, the bottoms of my feet began feeling bruised after about 200 miles and fully recovered only after a couple of weeks off the trail.
If I get to the border early and still have plenty of time left, I'm not averse to the idea of turning around and hiking back through Washington, hiking a section of the Northwest Trail, or taking the Amtrak to Glacier National Park and hiking south along the wild and scenic CDT as far as I have time to go. If I could see Olympic National Park, the Montana Rockies, or Yellowstone and the Wind Rivers in the same trip, that would only add to my experience.
Some of these wishes may well turn out to be naive. We'll see how it all pans out in the end!