The Ex­pe­ri­ence: Hik­ing in the Zone

Put in enough miles and feet hike on their own. By Liz “Snorkel” Thomas

Backpacker - - CONTENTS - –As told to Casey Lyons

Walk far enough and you’ll find your rhythm.


in Penn­syl­va­nia is in­laid with thou­sands and thou­sands of speed bumps. Rocks of all shapes and sizes stick out in any and all directions for miles and miles and miles. Ev­ery step is an ex­er­cise in prob­lem solv­ing.

The first time I cov­ered those miles, I joined the cho­rus of com­plain­ing thru-hik­ers. The sec­ond time, dur­ing my record-set­ting, self­sup­ported speed hike in 2011, the trail’s worst miles barely reg­is­tered.

We all learn how to hike by star­ing at our feet. Our brains, fully en­gaged, as­sess ev­ery square inch of trail, scan­ning for flat spa­ces be­tween rocks, good foot­ing around roots—the path of least re­sis­tance. It’s flat-out ex­haust­ing. We all know those endof-day stum­bles once the brain runs out of pro­cess­ing power. That’s a tough time to be an an­kle.

Some­time around the 3,000th mile I hiked, some­thing started to change. My brain, so prac­ticed in spa­tial prob­lem solv­ing, be­gan to do the task by it­self. My feet were free. I could trust the strength in my an­kles. I could look up.

The next year, I could walk down For­est Ser­vice roads read­ing a map. Then a guide­book. Then a novel. Now, my feet pick the best way down by in­stinct and grav­ity. Descend­ing feels as smooth and ob­vi­ous as wa­ter choos­ing its course. Rock-hop­ping is no trick­ier than dis­mount­ing the con­veyor belts at the air­port. I can stay in this state for four hours easy, mov­ing at a brisk 3 mph, be­fore some phys­i­cal need like hunger or warmth taps the brakes.

In time, some­thing else hap­pened. When my leg mus­cles started re­mem­ber­ing ev­ery­thing, my brain be­gan pro­cess­ing in the back­ground. My mus­cle mem­ory was writ­ten into my stride. Hik­ing was less an ac­tiv­ity than an iden­tity.

And over the 15,000 miles I’ve hiked, I’ve re­al­ized this truth: Speed is not just a func­tion of how strong you are. Fit hik­ers slow down in tricky ter­rain. But prac­ticed hik­ers don’t. Speed flows from smooth­ness. It’s coded in my head and stored in my legs, and now, my stride is part of who I am. It’s my sig­na­ture, writ­ten in foot­prints on the great long trails of Amer­ica.

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