I completed my first solo backpacking trip a month ago. I’m still flying high on the experience and the boost in confidence it gave me. I spent 3 days and 2 nights in the Grand Canyon, hiking from Hermit’s Rest to Hermit Creek to Hermit’s Rapids, then back up. It’s a 19.4 mile hike that has a 4300 foot elevation change. It’s intense, and I loved it. It’s fairly remote, more isolated than some of the more popular trails, and as such it leaves a lot of time for one to think. Here are a few more parallels I noted between the worlds of backpacking and gigging.

Hike Your Hike/Gig Your Gig

There’s a lovely saying in the backpacking/hiking world: “hike your hike.” It’s a sort of “you do you” thing. In other words, there is no need to compare or compete with anyone else. While many folks find great joy and accomplishment in breaking speed records or camping in extreme conditions, that’s not me. I go slow. I take my boots off when I take breaks. I take watercolors and a little journal. I take lots of pictures. I stare at rocks, stars, leaves, and water. Making good time can be nice, but making good time more often than not does not equal having a good time for me. Folks may go to spot wildlife, to make memories with friends, to have a spiritual experience, to study geology, to meet a physical endurance goal, to have the lightest pack, or to be able to carry a heavy one—it’s all good. And it’s ok to meet people on the trail who have a different agenda than you do. I am much happier and more fulfilled when I meet my goals instead of someone else’s, no matter how noble and worthwhile they may seem.

I’m endlessly surprised and fascinated when comparing notes with band mates after shows. “That was a great gig, right?” one of us can say enthusiastically. “What are you talking about?” another answers in disgust. Not only are our experiences different, our goals and values are different. Some of us are looking for an enthusiastic, engaged crowd. We may want to show off our prowess. We may be happy as long as we’re paid well, or there are good hors d’oevres. Maybe we’re looking for meaningful conversations with folks before or after the show. Connection. Or high energy and fun. There’s often a perfect cocktail of what makes an ideal gig for each of us, and it’s ok that it’s not the same for everyone. While one person may be happy to go sing solo at an open mic for a small audience, another wants the raucous stadium show. There’s enough room for all of us to have our preferences. And success as a musician may look very different for each of us. There is no one way to be fulfilled.

The Shortest Distance Between Two Points May Not Be A Straight Line

When hiking, sometimes you gotta go up to go down, or vice versa. Or around an obstacle instead of over or through it. To blast through, cut the switchbacks, or try to make the path straighter may just be a set back. Instead of trying to tame the terrain or alter an established trail, it’s more a matter of “going with the flow” and looking for paths of least resistance. It may involve tuning more into your body and instincts than what the mind says is most efficient. Skirting a side canyon instead of descending into it and climbing out may be a safer trail that may actually save time even if the trail is longer.

I’ve likewise found in being a gigging musician some gigs or contacts don’t initially make sense “from a business perspective” or aren’t obvious progress for the career you envision. Sometimes you work for less than you’re worth and make friends and reconnect with the essence of your creativity. Sometimes small venues lead to larger ones. Sometimes doing the work opens unexpected doors. Straight lines may exist to success, but I haven’t experienced them yet. (Or maybe they will be obvious and “straight” in retrospect. One day.)

Preparation Allows for Ease of Presence

One of the reasons this hike was so enjoyable is I prepared well for it. I trained physically for 5 months. I tested my gear and researched any new pieces I acquired. It helped that I had hiked the trail before and knew somewhat what to expect. I watched the forecast, but still packed for unexpected weather (a lesson learned last time). From experience, I knew better how much water to carry, and the locations of reliable water sources. I mentally prepared for what I might encounter, from weather to rattlesnakes, from an upset stomach to falls, from exhaustion to frustration and so on. When I got there, I wasn’t completely distracted thinking of what I hadn’t taken care of.

I’ve winged my fair share of gigs, and it can be fun—when it works. When it doesn’t, the whole gig is more anxiety-ridden. I’m so nervous thinking about what I don’t know that I can’t play intuitively or be fully present. I’m listening so intently to my own poor playing that I can’t hear or appreciate my bandmates. I spend more time apologizing and playing hesitantly than loving the music and engaging with the audience. When I prepare, joy flows more easily, and I can be more present.

A Little Encouragement Goes A Long Way

About 2 miles from the top on the Hermit Trail is a picturesque little oasis, Santa Maria Spring. There’s water, shade, and a place to sit. It’s a great day hike, but it means you still have some of the steepest terrain ahead, with another 1640 feet to climb. It’s a great place to rest before the final ascent. Here, I met a delightful lady from Germany who was out on her own solo adventure, though she was doing day hikes and hitting up major attractions across the United States. We had such an easy, meaningful conversation while we both caught our breath and I filled up my Nalgene bottle and water bladder. But, one of the great gifts she offered (that is completely free!) was encouragement. “That’s amazing! You must be so fit and have worked so hard…What an accomplishment…” It was sort of like having my own cheerleader at just the right moment. I was dirty, tired, and the day was getting weary. She helped me smile, pick myself up, and trudge uphill with happy determination.

Gigs, and life as a musician, sort of require—or at least go a lot better—with a sort of constant reassurance. Life as a creative is not understood by everyone. (Come to think of it, neither is walking around in the desert for days without a shower and eating rehydrated meals understood by everyone.) It often means waking up everyday and looking for work. It can mean spending an inordinate amount of time honing skills that not everyone values, understands, and that are used to make something as transitory and fleeting as music. Folks who have echoed back my own values, who have acknowledged my hard work, who have understood my struggles, and who have offered kind words and genuine encouragement are a big reason why I still play music, and why I continue life as a self-employed, full-time musician.

For friends and strangers who say “You can do it…You’re doing great work…I love your music…Keep going…” Thank you.

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