Maik is from Cottbus, Germany. He recently thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail back-to-back. Below is his story, told in his second language and edited by Sarah Jost and Margaret Hedderman.
Are we born to work our whole lives? We work up to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, for 40 years or more; which means that about one third of our life is spent working. Is this the meaning of life? Our system tells us, ‘Go to school, get a job, get married, get a house, get a car, have kids, and please die by 67.’ I wasn’t born to be a modern slave. There has to be something more than that. Mankind was born with curiosity and so was I.
It all began when I went to Australia with my best friend Ines to work and travel for a year. Being in another country is challenging – the people, the culture, the language, and being so far away from home. But it was fun, and I learned and saw a lot. I worked on an avocado farm, as a housekeeper, and in a 24-hour service station for six months. I then travelled around Australia for six months with a car. Coming back was hard. I stood in front of my locker at work and thought, ‘Was I really in Australia or was it just a dream?’ It was like the plane brought back my body, but forgot my soul.
I got stuck in my job for another 3 years, struggling to escape. Finally in 2014 I found my exit door. I quit and sold everything I owned and put the leftovers in boxes. Without a job, an apartment, insurance, contracts, a car, or other belongings, I felt more free than ever before. Chainless for the first time in my life. Armed with an 8 kg backpack, I stood at the airport and left everything else behind me. My aim was the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast of the USA.
As I stood at the Southern Terminus of the PCT in the early morning I wondered, ‘What am I doing here?’ If I said I loved hiking, I would be lying. I had no experience at all, except for some day trips. But I do like new challenges. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, looked back another time to the Mexican border and started walking into my biggest adventure ever. Step by step from Mexico to Canada.
After two months on the trail and 1,600 km under my feet, I learned to love hiking more then I ever could have imagined. Travelling in that way gave me the opportunity to experience my environment far more than with a bike, car, or bus. I could go wherever I wanted; meet interesting people; touch, smell, and see more. I challenged myself and was rewarded. I had so much fun and I found something that I was missing for a long time: humanity, which is still out there.
Some people couldn’t understand why I quit my job for hiking and maybe they never will. We are still caught in a system that forces us to work until the end in order to earn money to buy things that are supposed to make us happy. They do, but just for a short time. To live out of a backpack for six months is the easiest and best way to realise that. You have everything with you: your house, your kitchen, your cupboard, your bathroom, and more packed in a 60-litre bag. Your playground is right in front of you. I don’t regret anything in my life, especially not this step. It opened my eyes and mind to see that I only need little things to make me happy. Money can’t buy happiness, so why do I need more?
One hundred and sixty-five days and 4,270 km later, I stood at the Northern Terminus with a bittersweet taste in my mouth. What I had only dreamed about had come true, and what started with an idea turned into an epic journey from Mexico to Canada. All the reminders, stories, ups and downs, and thoughts are burned into my soul and nobody can take them from me. But it was time to say goodbye to my new friends and to return to my real life. But not for long because the next adventure was already in progress.
After one month sitting, preparing, and waiting, I flew to New Zealand with two of my best friends to hike the Te Araroa Trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff, a tough 3,000 km hike with everything you can imagine. The North Island with its steep, muddy forests, and long beach sections. The extensive road-walking sections and unmarked routes were the most challenging, driving me nuts and bringing me close to quitting at one point. The problem was that I started hiking Te Araroa thinking it would be just like the PCT. But it isn’t the Pacific Crest Trail, it is Te Araroa and accepting this took a while. The South Island was completely different, taking place in the backcountry with its beautiful mountains, breathtaking valleys, and beautiful lakes. Ultimately, Te Araroa, which has such diversity, gave me an insight into the countryside, the people, and the culture of Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.
Did I change over the last 12 months and 7,200 km? Of course I changed. It will happen to everyone who travels. That is part of the whole experience and it feels good. For myself, the biggest change is that I don’t take life so seriously anymore. The quote is old but true, ‘You only get one life and you should enjoy it.’ And so I do. I do whatever I want. I work whenever I feel like. I don’t pretend to be anyone else and I’m not afraid of the future anymore. I just need little things in my life to be happy.
In fact, happiness is my meaning of life. What is yours?