Harder, faster, quicker we pushed. Flying down the remaining miles to get to town. A non descript town with no exact name, because well it could be any town. A town in California, a town in New York, a town in Ohio, a town in Washington, a town in Alabama, any town across the United States. No matter the location, no matter the season, no matter the population, there could be a thousand differences, but there would always be one similarity. That similarity would come in the form of a cool, refreshing, crisp can that beaded with condensation and a promise of energy, sweet relief and relaxation. As the sweat from our bodies began to cool after aggressively pushing miles into town, our hand would clasp around our ritual, our tradition, our treat. We were a servant to our affliction and in direct correlation our addiction. Powerless in the grasp of the fiend inside of us. A fiend for sugar. A fiend for a a can of soda pop.
The look of someone that is wondering if the picture taker is giving himself Type II Diabetes...
It's funny how many similarities there are between long distance hikers. Miles, gear, choices, mentalities, all similar but at the same time being completely unique. The same is to be said about a hiker's ritual when they arrive in their next town stop. Some chose to run directly to the café chasing their most desired food, some instantly soothe their aches, pains and woes at the local bar, some instantly hop in the shower washing away the exhaustion and dirt from the trail, and some, ourselves included, have no say in the matter as our feet subconsciously direct us directly to any corner store to satiate our internal sugar fiend.
It becomes almost auto-pilot. As we would near a town our day would be loosely structured with finding a place to stay, eating, working, eating, laundry, eating, resupplying while eating, showering, and doing all the necessities of "life" that we could not do while in the backcountry. Yet, before we even began all of our checklist items, we had to "fuel" ourselves with a can of pop. Coke, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, any and all were welcome. We were not fussy with our sugar addiction, as long as we could satiate our growling demon inside of us, we were happy.
It is very difficult, extremely so, to deny your body cravings while thru-hiking, exponentially so when you are in a town. To continue down the path ahead of you, whether it is 100 miles, 1000 miles, 2000 miles, or 5000, you have to begin to pick your battles. Hikers begin to rationalize why they can eat, drink, consume the way they wish while in a town. Ourselves are extremely guilty of this as well. There were many times we would continue to consume until our bodies were uncomfortably bloated, full, and teetering upon the precipice of a sugar coma. Yet, that is what our body not only requested but blatantly screamed at us to provide, so who were we to say no, when we were asking continual output and brutality from it day after day, month after month.
Looking back it may have been just feeding our internal sugar demon. Now that we have had distance from it for awhile, we can feel and hear the echoes of our now suppressed sugar fiend rattling the bars of its cage, as it remembered a time it was fully free. We thought in the moment we were in control and we were fueling and giving our bodies a extra booster shot to increase our ability to hike, and hike hard. Yet, it did not actually increase our ability to hike, but decreased it exponentially.
Cookies, soda, Gatorade, and the sugary sweet Magpie, I have a tooth ache just looking at this...
After a gorging day in town of sugar, food, more sugar, and then pounds upon pounds of sugar on top, we would feel weak, tired, sluggish. After the initial energy of the sugar subsided it would leave us hollow of nutrients and aching for more sugar. It would be a quick burn accomplishing very little besides internal and instantaneous gratification. Was the instantaneous gratification what we needed to finish our hike? Was a small pleasure worth the effects it was having on our body?
Honestly, we are still a little conflicted on how to answer this. As our article a week ago talked of deprivation, a thru-hike is truly a habitual act of deprivation day after day. The small, the "inconsequential" and something as simple as a can of soda pop can fuel your mind for days. Fantasizing about the cold crispness of that first sip, dreaming of sitting down relaxing in the sun, imagining a moment in time we were not in perpetual motion. To not have something to fuel your internal mind, it would be a bleak existence indeed, even if that internal fuel was a simple can of sugar. So, to answer this question we still deeply believe yes, but that yes is not unconditional, it is a yes with a clause inside of it. It is a yes but a yes with a degree of caution.
There are few things in this world worse for you than obscene amounts of sugar. Truly, there have been many studies done where sugar ranks among other dangerous substances that are detrimental to your health. It can lead to heart disease, diabetes, high-blood pressure, just to name a few. Of course on a thru-hike when you are pumping out thousands of calories daily the furthest thing from your mind is health effects such as these, but it can lead to these nonetheless.
It comes down to balance. Something we still have yet to master on a thru-hike. We have gotten better about managing it in our "off-trail" life, but on trail still takes conscious effort. To arrive into a town and grab a single can off soda pop is not necessarily terrible for you. The pros may actually outweigh the cons at a certain point, physically and mentally. Yet when it develops past the single can of soda that is where the danger lies. When it develops into a nice pairing between the house red of a Coca-Cola with the silky texture of a cake. Or the pairing of the house white of a Sprite with a few doughnuts. All examples we take from our personal life, we are not perfect. Yet, we hope to strive for better.
No, the soda machine did not work... but it certainly made our inner fiend growl with hunger!
Near the end of this hiking season of 2021, we began to experiment with less. Sometimes not even a soda pop, but instead replaced with a tea. Granted the tea still had sugar, but exponentially less. We would not pair it with other forms of processed sugars, but instead with something deep fried... Yea we know not much better for you, but baby steps here. We needed a way to quiet our sugar fiend, and we needed to once again slowly walk him back into the cage with which he had broken free.
As long as we still had the ritual and the simple act to look forward to in town, we were okay. The fiend would still rear its ugly head every so often, but we now had the lock and key, we could chose to contain it when we wished. It is all about balance and consciousness. If you chose to consume, consume consciously. Know your body, know your output, know how it affects you immediately as well as down the road. Give yourself mentally what you need, but recognize when you have been satiated.
Back to the question, is it worth it? Yes. We more likely than not will still in the future run into a town aching for the sweet relief of a cold can of pop, but the frequency will be less. We will not deprive ourselves fully, but we will consciously take stock of what we actually need in the moment. The sugar fiend will still get fed, but we will chose when its time to feed. Thru-hiking doesn't make you invincible even if you feel like it in the moment, find balance, and you will find health and happiness.