I wasn’t ready to hike Humphreys Peak in 2016. Reaching 12,635 feet, it’s hardly the tallest peak in the continental U.S., but it is the tallest in Arizona and well above the tree line. That means there is substantially less oxygen and it will give out-of-shape hikers a hard time before reaching the top.
The switchbacks through the woods were poetically scenic. I thought this hike was in the bag until I reached the trail’s saddle and faced the jagged alpine leading to the summit. Every step felt like trudging through mud, my lungs begged for more air, and my trekking poles did little to ground me into the loose rock.
It was hell. It’s also one of my favorite memories.
Experiences like this are what I call secondary fun—the ones you hate in the moment but look back on fondly. It’s not a phrase I coined but one I see used rarely, which is surprising because I think it defines what hiking is all about.
Human Beings Crave Conflict
American journalist Sebastian Junger describes our need for conflict and discomfort in his newest book Tribe. There is no better time to live safely and comfortably than in 2017. It’s a blessing we enjoy but those same comforts also create a new depression epidemic in the United States. Think about that kid you knew growing up who had everything. They should have been the happiest people on the planet, but too often it was the opposite. Even if we don’t want conflict, we do need some of it to feel alive.
Secondary Fun Creates Accomplishment
I ran my first Road Ragnar earlier this year. I know it’s not exactly a marathon, but running a 24+ hour relay with little to no sleep has its own challenges. You’re cramped inside a van reeking of sweat and body odor with no place to sleep or even relax. Does this sound appealing? Despite my terrible sales pitch, I can’t wait to do it again in 2018. Even though a Ragnar isn’t a huge physical accomplishment, it was something that took discomfort and a little grit.
Secondary Fun Makes a Great Story
“I hiked the Grand Canyon last year and it was a lovely nine-mile walk up the Bright Angel Trail. The end.”
That story sucks. Let’s try that again.
“I hiked the Grand Canyon last year in the brutal heat of June. Something in the canyon dust caused an allergic reaction on the back of my legs and I had to soak them in the Bright Angel Creek just to quench the swelling fire. The campground offered little-to-no shade and it was so hot I had to leave for the hike out at 2:30 in the morning. I had nothing but my headlamp and what little trail I could see in front of my own feet to navigate out. The early morning sun thrashed at the back of my rash-ridden legs like sandpaper against a sunburn.”
That was me. That was my rash. And hell yes, you better believe I’m going again.
Secondary Fun > Primary Fun
Would you rather ride a roller coaster or go skydiving? The former is cool, everyone loves a thrill ride, but the latter floods your brain with more dopamine than any drug. Primary fun is a video game, a good movie, or a night out for drinks. It’s fine, we all enjoy it, but secondary fun makes us alive. Of course, secondary fun is made a little better when you’re actually in shape for a good hike. But that just means you can push the boundaries even further.
So the next time you’re exhausted on the trail or freezing at camp, remember that it’s only hell in the moment. The memory after is heaven.