Hiking The Ouachita Trail in Winter
The Hardest Hike I’ve Ever Done
The three weeks I hiked on the Camino in September was the longest distance I have ever hiked at one time…266 miles. But it was for sure not the hardest hike I have ever done.
Hiking the Coast to Coast across England was probably more difficult as we had longer mileage days and higher hills. But I also did the Coast to Coast in September.
In fact, September is quickly becoming my favorite month of the year to walk. The weather is perfect. You start in the summer and end in autumn. The days are still long enough to hike a lot of miles before it gets dark. There’s a lot to love about hiking in September.
But to me, there is something satisfying about pulling off a winter hike. Somehow it’s like you’re defying the seasons and sucking some extra life out of the year by refusing to stay in doors once it gets cold. I’ve never naturally loved winter so it’s especially true for me that when I get outside for a long walk in the cold, I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.
After a few hours outside on a winter day, I come home and comfort myself with tea and soup. And also hot showers and blankets. It’s a whole process of warming up and congratulating myself on braving the weather.
So when I hiked the 200+ miles of the Ouachita Trail in winter through rain and snow, and slept outside in trail shelters, I felt like a beast. It was not my longest hike, but it was easily the hardest one I have tackled up to this point.
As far as American long distance trails go, the Ouachita Trail is neither long nor hard. The more popular thru-hikes are all much harder and longer. The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail come in at 2181 miles, 2650 miles and 3100 miles long, respectively. When I consider those distances and the mountain ranges those trails traverse, I know it’s a bit of a mockery to call the OT hard. (212 miles is chump change compared to 2000+ miles!)
BUT, I am not comparing myself to long distance hikers who do the OT in 9-10 days as a training hike in the off-season. (Which is beast indeed.)
I’m comparing my 2 1/2 weeks on the OT to 2 1/2 weeks of my own regular hiking. And by those standards, the OT is – to date – the hardest hike I’ve ever done.
Immediately after hiking the Ouachita Trail in winter, I got sick with a certain virus that has been plaguing our world for the last couple of years. I was sick for 2 months. (I don’t recommend it.)
In a weird plot twist, the moment of my life in which I felt the strongest I have ever been physically was followed by maybe the weakest I have ever been. I went from building muscle all day ling, hiking hills, braving all kinds of weather and sleeping in freezing temps to watching all that strength drain out of me like water when the bathtub plug is pulled. One moment I was hiking almost 20 miles a day and the next I couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen.
Because the illness was so long, it seemed to me like everything I had gained was lost, like I’d never go for a long walk again.
And since I spent so much of the winter and spring slowly crawling out of a COVID hole, I kind of forgot about the Ouachita Trail. I didn’t write much about it or record it like I had intended.
Now almost a whole year has passed since I walked it.
This time last year, I was training and prepping my gear. I was packing my backpack and carrying it around the neighborhood.
So it feels like a good moment to unearth my Ouachita Trail memories. I’m ready to open up my trail log and reclaim those icy river crossings and starlit nights.
It’s been such a joy to re-live my Camino miles through writing them out on this blog, so my plan is to now do something similar for the Ouachita Trail.
From where I sit, with a bird’s eye view of the whole year in hindsight, I can see that even when you lose all your physical strength, you still have a strength deep within yourself.
And you can always go back to the beginning and start over again.
One step at a time.