I have to admit I had some apprehensions in preparing for this hike, as it was more miles than I’d ever walked before and my first time in the Mojave Desert. The name alone seemed to carry some dangerous possibilities with it. When I thought of a desert, I thought of barren landscapes with no shade or shelter and venomous creatures everywhere. I was confident that I could handle anything that came my way, but still had irrational fears to overcome.
Once on the trail, I quickly fell into the rhythm of my surroundings and realized there was really nothing to fear. The chance of getting bitten by a venomous snake or being attacked by a cougar were so slim it was not worth the preoccupation. The desert did not turn out to be the barren landscape I imagined. Don't get me wrong - it was very hot and sometimes extremely windy, but, overall, Southern California is a beautiful place that I hope everyone can have the chance to enjoy someday.
With fears of my new environment set aside, I was able to focus on my hiking strategy. Five hundred miles was the longest section hike I’d attempted. Last year, I joined Anna for a 130-mile section from Crater Lake to Elk Lake Resort in Oregon. I can still remember how tired and sore I felt recovering in the motel room in Bend after only a fraction of what I was setting out to complete this time.
A few things were different this year. I cut a lot of weight from my pack, lost some bodyweight myself, and completely changed my diet. Nine months ago, I adopted a 100% whole food plant-based diet. That meant this year no more Mountain House pre-packaged meals or dehydrated eggs, no jerky or powdered milk and definitely no cheeseburgers, milkshakes or pizzas in town. The biggest concern in this way of eating on the trail is calorie intake, as a plant-based diet is inherently low in fat and therefore less calorie dense. To meet my calorie needs, I simply carried a larger volume (not necessarily weight) of food or walked faster between resupplies so I carried less food (and ate constantly in town). I discovered that eating plant-based and nutrient dense food gave my body exactly what it needed to perform and recover at a level I had never experienced before. I felt and still feel stronger and in better shape than ever. My endurance reached a whole new level. This is remarkable to me, since I thought those days were long gone. I have no doubt that for me, a plant-based diet is going to be the most valuable strategy for taking on the rest of the trail this summer.
Since completing my section hike a couple weeks ago, I have been asked several times what the most memorable part was. There were many beautiful views, cool plants, animals and fun trail towns, but the most rewarding experience for me was sharing our Nourishing Journey mission with others - hikers and non-hikers. For the most part, people were very receptive of the insights I offered on diet and how our food choices have global implications. Through my conversations and observations I identified two main barriers to change in the way people eat. First, the nature of our healthcare system is to focus on alleviating symptoms rather than treating the root cause, yielding ineffective, costly outcomes and creating a disconnect between health and diet. Second, our cultural biases and social norms work to systematically override objective science. (Read Whole, by T. Colin Campbell).
Our Western culture is largely unaware of the broad effects of food on human health and the environment. We therefore find it difficult and sometimes impossible to live healthy lifestyles. With the collective influence of media, industrial food production, pharmaceuticals, diet fads, supplements, misleading research, and social norms, change is arduous. Choosing a whole food plant-based lifestyle often causes one to face significant resistance with family, friends, coworkers and even health care providers. This overarching attitude prevents proper nutrition from being the keystone habit for a healthy lifestyle.
The same food that fueled my body through the southern California desert can reverse disease, put an end to global depletion and lessen the burden of a failing healthcare system on our society. Despite the barriers people face, I try to remain hopeful that if we can help others reach a state of better health through food, the evidence to support this lifestyle will be common knowledge to all. As Anna and I prepare food and resupply boxes, I look forward to the many rewards of getting back on the trail - the people I will meet, conversations I will have, and inspirations yet to be revealed.
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