Beautifully Ruined: A Life Transformed by Time on the Trail

How do you go through a life-changing experience, then slip right back into the life you had before?

That’s a confounding question for me. It’s been hanging heavily over my life, unanswered, since my 1,800-mile Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt last year.

I finally reached the conclusion that there are two types of hikers in this world. Some have an amazing ability to absorb a transformative experience like a thru-hike, and then seamlessly cruise back into “real life” without missing a beat.

Within a few days of concluding their hikes, these normal humans are back to work and re-engaged with friends and family. They pick up their daily routine as if their time on the trail was just an extended vacation. Fond memories warm their hearts, while vague dreams of “someday” getting out on the trail again quickly dissolve like fog fading into the chaos of everyday life.

Then there are the rest of us: incurable people like me. We’re the ones who come back from our adventures with subtle yet significant changes in the molecular structure of our being. We struggle to go back to the way things were, knowing that we’ll never be the same.

Our souls are touched by months among the trees and rocks. The mud we cursed for miles takes up residence in our minds, and our dreams of returning to the trail become cravings for a thing we can’t quite describe.

Before my thru-hike attempt, I heard someone say they were “ruined by the trail” and I couldn’t fathom what that meant. How could the journey of a lifetime be the ruin of you?

Now I know.

Unexpected Transformation

I didn’t anticipate the transformation I experienced on the trail any more than I expected to be a different person after the birth of my first child. Back then I told everyone, “I won’t change, I’ll just be me, with a child.” I’m sure anyone who was already a parent had a good laugh at that!

For me, hiking the Appalachian Trail for seven months was so much more than a long vacation spent hiking in the woods. It was a time for me to rediscover myself. I got re-acquainted with the person I thought I’d be way back when I was 18, and I uncovered oh so many questions about who I want to be today.

My thru-hike attempt was difficult. I struggled almost daily with pain in my feet. From plantar fasciitis to Achilles tendonitis, I wrestled with every step. Just when I was finally getting better, I endured a particularly challenging stretch of rocky terrain going into Harpers Ferry, smashing my toes repeatedly as I rushed to get to town. I desperately needed to catch a train, then a plane, so I could be with my mom when she had open heart surgery.

I returned to the trail a week later, not realizing the damage I had done. I hiked north for weeks on what I thought was a broken foot. The worsening pain got in my head, challenging my resolve and testing my ability to persevere. With nothing showing up on the X-ray, doctors had no firm answers. “Just rest,” they said, but I already knew rest didn’t help.

Through it all, I learned what it’s like to live with chronic pain and I developed incredible compassion for people who suffer from it for a lifetime.

Most importantly, I discovered that my willpower was stronger than the pain.

Big Little Lessons

Finding my inner strength was one of the most enduring lessons from my trek through 14 states, but it wasn’t the only one. In fact, some of the most powerful ones were far more subtle.

Like why in God’s name did I come home with absolutely zero tolerance for BS? Before my hike I was fairly easygoing unless I was under a lot of stress. Now, my attitude when faced with too much red tape or anyone who wants to beat around the bush and not give me a straight answer is, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Something about the simplicity of life on the trail shaped my perspective on being direct. As a thru-hiker, all you really need to do is hike, make camp, eat, sleep, break camp, and hike again. There’s very little to stand in your way except your own mind-set. There is no resistance in your path; only your own choices. Do I want to hike through bad weather? Is it time for a zero? That’s all up to you.

Some people call thru-hiking “work,” which makes me bristle. Sure, if you want to reach Katahdin, you need to be diligent and persistent in pursuit of that goal. You need to be mindful of your health and eat to fuel your body. You should avoid the gravity of the town vortex and make sure you log enough miles to keep yourself on schedule. But that’s not work. It’s focus.

Even though I didn’t finish my thru-hike, I found that intense focus within myself. I know now that I have the power to complete a 2,200-mile hike. I can do it, and I will someday.

I’m a bulldog when it comes to working toward a goal I’m passionate about. When I DON’T do something I planned, I learned, it’s because I really don’t want to. Plain and simple: I’ve lost the ability to waste my precious life on things that don’t seem to matter.

Which is exactly why I’m so ruined by my time on the trail.

Ruined, Not Broken

Now that I’ve been home for a few months, I have accepted the fact that I just can’t see life the way I used to. At first, I chalked that up to “the post trail blues” (you may have heard that called depression, but I hesitate to use that term unless we’re talking about real depression, which is a serious thing).

As an “incurable,” getting back to work and family life was hard when I returned in November. I wasn’t the same person who left seven months before. My sense of self was stronger. I had both intense clarity about who I needed to be and simultaneously, a murky understanding of how to get there.

My family wondered who I had become, when in truth I was myself more than ever before. They saw someone different because they had become used to living with the echo of a person buried under layers of shoulds and oughtas and the pressures of “real life.”

That person was now ruined. Gone. Wiped out.

The trail cured me of the constraints of everyone else’s expectations. I learned I need to live fully, and be fully who I am.

Becoming that person isn’t easy. I still have to shed lots of mental baggage (and crap around the house, accumulated through years of “keeping up”). The stuff that weighs me down needs to go so I can be free to live as I am.

I need to make changes in my career that place me closer to the trail, closer to the outdoors, and closer to nature than I’ve been in years. I need to allow my creative spirit to soar, and I need to practice letting go of self-imposed limitations on a daily basis.

Some who know me might think all this transformation is a bad thing. It’s not. I haven’t gone off the deep end and I’m not having a midlife crisis. I am just finally, simply, purely ME.

Today I’m being choosy, riding the best waves instead of letting them all wash over me and pull me under. As a result, the people who love and care about me will get to know me even better. They’ll see who I was made to be. And I hope that person will serve as a beautiful example of what it means to live an intentional life, guided by your own true north.

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Comments 9

  • Ralph McGreevy : Aug 4th

    Great article. It is not a very original observation, but doing a very long hike is much like a minor version of going to war. It is can be hard to tolerated mundane day to day life and the shallow narcissism that surrounds us. Well, you have been enlightened and awakened. There is much that needs to be done in the world and I hope you apply yourself to it. Good luck.

    Reply
  • Marlene Wulf : Aug 4th

    Wow, well said! And very inspiring! Good luck to the new you, or should I say, the old you that has re-emerged from the trail. That writing was top-notch, any plans for a career in it?

    Reply
    • Joellyn Sargent : Aug 5th

      Yes – it’s the old me, re-emerging! I don’t think I have a career in writing full time but I would love to do more, especially about the outdoors, travel, and adventure. I enjoy blogging and have started working on my book, so who knows what the future holds?

      Reply
  • Kimberley Ayers : Aug 4th

    I second a previous comment- your writing style is on point. I encourage you to write more and write often! This is a beautiful story of your experience and that of many others. Well done, friend.

    Reply
    • Joellyn Sargent : Aug 5th

      Thanks, Try Try! I do plan to write more. I’ll be blogging here about my upcoming Long Trail hike (and other things).

      Reply
  • Bonnie : Aug 4th

    Please finish the trail and write a book. You tell it well. Love your writing.

    Reply
    • Joellyn Sargent : Aug 5th

      Thank you so much! Hopefully I’ll finish this year.

      Reply
  • Tim Moe : Aug 5th

    Thanks, Joellyn, for this well-written and insightful summary of your experience on the AT.
    I’m a LASHER, who has been hiking the trail for the last ten years, and just completed a 198 mile section in Vermont and New Hampshire.
    Although I am not a thru-hiker, during my extended time on the trail I can relate to many of your thoughts and experiences. It IS a transformative experience that is difficult to explain to people who haven’t been there.

    Thank YOU for putting it into words.

    Tim ‘Triple M…mmm’

    Reply
  • Nemophilist : Aug 6th

    Phew! Me too! Your post really resonated with me! Happy trails!

    Reply

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