Photo by Ethan Gehl
Read something else

My Trail Story featuring Sochi

Ethan Gehl, a.k.a. Sochi, has hiked 6,000+ miles all over the world and shares what he's learned from his time in the wilderness.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       03/07/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story
03/07/2019
A man jumping in the air off a rock next to a lake.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

Reflecting on a Half Decade and 6,000+ Miles of Trails

I wish I had known when I took my first steps on the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2014 that thru-hiking can so easily become an addiction. But even more than that, I wish I had known that the addiction is a mixed bag. I’ve hiked over 6,000 miles since my first long trail back in 2014, including the South Island of New Zealand’s Te Araroa, the Three Passes Trek in Nepal, the Laugavegur in Iceland, and the lesser-known Lowest to Highest route from Badwater Basin to the top of Mount Whitney. I’m also aspiring to trek another 2,500 miles between now and Christmas, including the Hayduke route, the Oregon Coast Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and even an FKT attempt on the Ozark Highlands Trail. Let’s just go ahead and say it: I’m an addict.

I’ve gained so much from my addiction. The wilderness, and the solitude I so readily find in it, has become my sanctuary, my canvas, and my gym. What I mean by that is that the wilderness has supported my mental health by providing a space for personal reflection and introspection; it has supported my emotional health by sharing its inspiring views and once-in-a-lifetime experiences; it has supported my physical health by challenging me with steep grades and high altitudes. But remember what they say about too much of a good thing. I recognize that my time in the wilderness has come at a cost. But then, maybe that’s the nature of every choice we make in life. Nothing is perfect, after all. We can’t have everything.

Beautiful fall colored trees with a small stream.
Photo by Ethan Gehl
People hiking far in the distance on rocky mountain.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

I have so many thoughts about thru-hiking: what it means to me, how it enriches my life, which lessons I’ve taken from my time in the wild, and the sacrifices I’ve made to live this life. Certainly too many to broach in any depth here with one short post. Still, I’m going to try to synthesize a half decade and 6,000+ miles of lessons and Ah-ha moments. For the full journey, check out my website at sochitreks.com.

My first authentic introduction to the so-called trail community came in the morning on my fifth day on the PCT. I was packing up my gear, and a fellow hiker I’d met in the previous days sparked up a conversation with me. If you’ve thru-hiked, then you know the community small talk: where did you hike from; what’s your trail name; what kind of gear are you carrying. A friend of mine once said that it’s the a/s/l of thru-hiking. (Have any of you even heard of AIM? Did I just date myself? No matter.) Long story, short. I’d walked over 30 miles the day prior. Another hiker asked if I’d just gotten back from competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. That was it; I’ve been Sochi ever since. I already felt like I belonged in the wilderness, that I was in my element, but that was the moment where I first felt like I belonged in the community.

A group of hikers standing next to a Te Araroa trail sign post.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

You see, I’ve come to realize that the thing I love even more than thru-hiking itself is the thru-hiking community. I’ve met some of my dearest friends on the trail. Ten-k and Twinkle on the PCT and later on FAFBAB, The Man, Just Rob Lord, and Hundred Billion Kilometer Kirsten on the Te Araroa. I’ve been on some amazing trails and seen some truly incredible places, but my favorite thru-hikes are the ones where I find my people. Chris McCandless said “Happiness only real when shared.” I don’t subscribe to that idea, but I do agree that happiness is better when shared. The most difficult part about being a thru-hiking junkie, about always aspiring to hit another trail, is that I don’t have that same sense of stable community and of deep understanding when I’m not out there. It can be a painfully lonely life between trails. I don’t feel lonely when I’m alone in the wilderness; I feel lonely when I’m surrounded by a community of which I’m not a part.

I don’t know what that means except that I value both solitude and community, both experience and relationship. I feel torn between my two authentic selves. On the one hand, an accomplished thru-hiker struck by wanderlust and always reaching for more. And on the other, the father-figure and pillar of my community that I intend to be one day. I wonder whether one person can have it all; whether I get to live my best vagabond life, then live my best family life; whether we really ever move past our addictions, especially those which have defined us so deeply.

A waterfall flowing off a rock formation.
Photo by Ethan Gehl
A landscape photo of lots of green hills and mountains.
Photo by Ethan Gehl
A beautiful landscape photo of mountains and a small lake.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

I’ve come to believe that there are stages of life, that we are one person for a period, but that we constantly grow and change – often without realizing it – and that we can become someone new if we choose to. I believe that pain and discomfort are the catalysts and opportunities to become better versions of ourselves. (And furthermore that growing in physical discomfort, like on a thru-hike, teaches us to grow similarly in emotional discomfort, like in interpersonal relationships.) Do you retreat, avoid, quit, or hide – a slave to the hard things? Or do you rise and face them? Do you work through the negative self-talk, the self-defeating stories, and the demoralizing beliefs that you have about yourself – even when that process is cumbersome and devoid of grace? Can you even hear your own self-talk through the noise and distractions around you? Whether you do or not, trust me when I say that it has a profound influence on the quality of your life. Do you know who you are and what you want independent of outside influences: social pressure, family expectations, and your own sense of mortality?

The silence and tranquility that I find in wilderness has allowed me to discover myself again and again, to challenge outside influences and the story that plays out in my own head. I’ve learned so much about who I am and how I continue to change just by reflecting on how I show up in the wilderness and how my experiences out there affect me. However you choose to reflect, process, and grow, my hope is that you won’t just let life happen to you. That you’ll work to always be better tomorrow than you were today, even if progress feels sluggish. That when things are difficult, you will look first inward at your own heart, remembering that Destiny waits patiently where our hearts lead us. Let your heart guide you, not your fear. That’s what the wilderness has taught me.

I routinely challenge myself in the wilderness, almost always alone. Many times I’ve been terrified, nearly paralyzed by fear. I vividly recall feeling my heart in my throat, feeling my pulse throbbing in my ears, feeling my whole body shake uncontrollably. Those are the moments where I meet myself. I think most of us want to believe that we’d be calm, cool, and collected under extreme pressure and stress, that we could stare into the void, take a breath, think clearly, and will ourselves forward. But we can’t know that until we’re in it. We can’t know until we’re cliffed out on an exposed ridge and the storm is rolling in; can’t know until a cougar stalks us closely for four hours on a solo night hike; can’t know until we’re charged by a wild boar at five o’clock in the morning; can’t know until we’re ab deep in a raging river fighting to keep our feet amidst the swift current.

A man drinks out of a champagne bottle at the northern Pacific Crest Trail terminus.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

Meeting myself repeatedly and finding that I am who I always hoped I was has allowed me to bring that same level-headedness and steady courage to my life beyond the wilderness, even when I’m scared and hurt, even when I’m without dignity and grace. I’m not the guy who dances elegantly across an exposed knife edge; I’m the guy who straddles the apex and awkwardly scoots along. It’s not always pretty, but I don’t freeze and I don’t run. I breathe, acknowledge my fear, and will myself forward. The wilderness taught me that too. The wilderness has been my most trusted and valued mentor.

A beautiful snow covered mountain with a blue lake at the base.
Photo by Ethan Gehl

I’ve been so lucky to live a truly free-spirited life that I love so deeply. And yet being able to do so has meant sacrificing a stable, present community; meant choosing my ambition and lifestyle over the few great loves of my life; meant forgoing comfort and an economic safety net; and even meant front-loading my retirement and setting myself up to work for the rest of my life in order to support myself into old age. These are dues I’ve happily paid.

I have had the incredible privilege to live more in the last decade than most people have the opportunity to live in a century. And yet each day I struggle more and more with the temptation to trade my free-spirit for the comforts and connection that come with a more stable lifestyle. Pros and cons for each, and perhaps also a time and place for each. For me, I think there are a few more trails I’d like to walk and places I’d like to see first, but I feel myself transition more and more with each adventure toward my next stage of life.

I do not know what you have found or what you hope to find in wilderness, but I know that if you listen, the wilderness will speak your truth back to you. I also know that your truth today may not be your truth tomorrow. Love the wilderness. And listen to her, always.


Want to keep up with all that’s going on at Atlas Guides? Sign up for our newsletter!

Read more!

Check out some related blog posts!

Get our hiking guide for this area!

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 mi       $29.99 full guide
Explore the Trail
Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
Photo by Justin Helmkamp
A trail meanders through a green and mountainous landscape on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Washington, Pacific Crest Trail
Photo by Justin Helmkamp
Get our hiking guide for this area!

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 mi
$29.99 full guide
Explore the Trail
About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.