I've been catching up on some through-hikers I was following last summer. For those of you who aren't backpackers (in the US sense, not the European sense), through-hikers are people who hike an entire long trail (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.) in a single season (well, more like 3 seasons, starting very early in spring and continuing until they arrive at the end or snow gets too deep to manage, whichever comes first). I'd been following a couple of PCT hikers, and got distracted, so I went back yesterday and read the blogs all the way through, since they were all off the trail by late October. I don't know if this sort of thing is meant satisfy my desire to do a long hike, or feed it, but that's a post for another day.
What I wanted to talk about was the concept of a "Zero" or "Zero Day". A day in town or camp when you don't hike anywhere. Zero mileage. When you are trying to cover 2660 miles between late March and first snow in the North Cascades, you think a lot about miles (you also think a lot about miles between food drops, since taking a day too long could mean a day without dinner, not something you want to consider when hiking 20-25 miles/day). Spending a whole day without gaining any miles can be hard.
What I got to thinking about this afternoon is how hard it is for me to take a Zero, to stop doing all the things I'm supposed to be doing. Now, granted that on those "Zero Days" the hikers usually kept plenty busy--laundry and shopping and eating as many meals as they could jam in--in a sense they didn't do any of what they were there to do, i.e., hike. That's the beauty of a Zero. Just don't do it.
Maybe that's behind the old religious prohibition on doing any work on
Sunday. If we humans don't know enough to take a rest day when we need
it, maybe we need an outside force telling us to, before we burn
ourselves out. Around here in the U.S. we've pretty much forgotten
about that whole Day of Rest thing, but I'm old enough to remember when
very very few stores were open on Sundays, and most people (except
ministers) took the day off. Everyone took a Zero and was the better
for it (eventually my Mom stopped cooking on Sundays, too, though not
for religious reasons. She just needed a day off).
So today I really haven't done much. I finished two books last night, and read another clear through today. It was past time for me to do that, and it meant, as much as anything, getting the heck off the internet (where I'd been all yesterday afternoon, reading about through-hikers. . . ) and just reading a book. But I was also feeling pretty guilty. Not doing any writing, not cleaning up the post-holiday mess, just indulging myself. Like I did when I was a kid--curled up with a book for hours.
But here's the thing: on my "Zero", when I'm kind of beating myself up for not doing anything productive, I have puttered at a number of minor kitchen chores, baked a batch of bread, done a load of laundry, finally pulled out my dead and dying tomato plants and spaded compost into the beds to rot the rest of the winter in preparation for the spring planting, and cleaned up the mud I tracked into the house afterward.
See what I mean? I'm not too good at taking a Zero. Okay, yeah, I can take a day off from writing, especially the revisions I'm supposedly working on right now, all too easily. But the rest of my job is that of chief housekeeper and I can't seem to let it go. But the thing is: if the hikers don't take a Zero now and then, they break down. The body just won't keep it up, the mind wears down. Next thing you know, you've left the trail for permanent, not just for a day.
Now, I've a hunch that "trail fatigue" might happen to writers, too. Take a break or get the boot. I'm not so sure about housework, but I do know that a) it will never go away, and b) it will never go away. It'll still be there tomorrow. Take a Zero. Read a book and let the dust bunnies thrive one more day.