How I Got Rid of My Trail Funk
The smell. The odor of layers of sweat between your pores. The sweet, sticky smell of body odor stuck in your clothes. The dirt in the crease of your skin don’t help when people turn their heads to look at you, the cause of this smell.
But I’m not talking about the smell. I have labeled my mood from Harpers Ferry, WV to Port Clinton, PA — a 200-mile stretch — a trail funk.
Harpers Ferry is the psychological halfway point, as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) likes to say. The exact halfway point this year is 1,095.5. For celebratory purposes, registration purposes, and because the ATC headquarters are in Harpers Ferry, it has become the symbolic and spiritual place of realizing you have hiked half of the trail.
But you also have not hiked half the trail. The second half awaits.
The southern portion offers a lot of milestones: getting out of Georgia, reaching the Smokies. Every 100 miles is usually marked by sticks or rocks organized into numbers. Reaching Damascus, VA, is a source of victorious thoughts, especially if you time your hike to walk into the annual AT and hiker festival, Trail Days in May.
At Harpers Ferry the ATC office takes your picture and labels your image with a number. I am the 914th hiker to pass through Harpers Ferry on a thru-hike. This year 2,500 people registered a NOBO thru-hike on the ATC website. This number doesn’t account for unregistered hikers and other discrepancies, so it’s probably higher. I sensed the dropout rate creeping into the hiker bubbles.
A Tough Decision
I made the hardest decision of my hike at the halfway point. Sadie had developed a blister on her paw pad and limped her way out of the Shenandoah Mountains like a champ. Since my parents were planning to meet us in Harpers Ferry the question arose: would I send Sadie home with them?
Though her paw was healing quickly and she could hike in a day or two, I felt and feel, that the best thing for her and the thru-hike was to send her home. If she had sustained a greater injury farther north, farther from my North Carolina home, then her health, safety, and the continuation of my hike would be put at risk.
Hiking out of town was difficult, with the emotional weight of my decision weighing on my heart, and a full pack weighing on my shoulders. Luckily, my trail family was reunited in town and I was able to hike out with a supportive group of friends.
That rainy day out of Harpers Ferry induced a trail funk.
The second half of the AT yawns before you at the halfway point. The miles to Katahdin are still over 1,000. The victories seem smaller. There are two states that fly by: West Virginia and Maryland. But Pennsylvania awaits with her rocks, slow days, low elevations, and bugs.
I found my mind turning to the end of the trail. Saying goodbye to Sadie and my parents caused me to realize that I would not see them again until I had reached the Northern Terminus and returned home. For the first time the entirety of the trail, beginning to end, stretched through my mind for a brief moment.
I had completed three months of hiking and the rest seemed like it would be more of the same. What else is there for this hike? What can I learn? Have I gotten everything I can from this? Why am I still choosing to hike?
These questions ran through my head. The trail had lost the sheen of a new experience. Every day felt like the same thing: hike, eat, talk about hiking, plan miles, eat, sleep.
The trail community thinned out a lot in Pennsylvania. For the first time I went days only seeing a number of hikers I can count on one hand. Additionally, Pennsylvania is horrible. That’s purely my opinion and content for another article, but the rough terrain only made my dwindling excitement wane further, and my apathetic attitude expand.
Getting Through the Funk
I talked about my funk. I expressed questions and doubts to friends. I had no shame for my questioning. I found that other hikers felt the same way. We had all been working up to the halfway point and now that moment had passed, we did not know how to mentally prepare ourselves for the remaining half.
This hike calls for a long-game strategy. When you think you are built to last, the trail asks for more. When your body is strong, lean, a hiking and calorie crushing machine, the trail offers the next stage of the challenge: mental.
They say that the first part of the trail is physical, the second mental, and there is a bit at the end that calls for your spirit. Whatever spiritual energy you have left at the end will carry you.
I never considered leaving the trail. Admitting my funk wasn’t an indication of quitting. So I let myself feel. I didn’t critique my lackluster attitude. I existed in this new mental and emotional space while my 1,000-plus-mile hardened body carried me through the rocky ridges of Pennsylvania.
Then, I took a break when it was offered. On July 3 a friend from my hometown reached out. He was in Pennsylvania for the week and was willing to pick me and my friends up for some trail magic. Despite the fact that the river cabin being offered was two hours away, I jumped at the chance.
A Change in Energy
The prospect of leaving the hiker bubble, not being in a hiker town, and surrounding myself with new scenery and conversations with a hometown friend — it was exactly what I was craving.
My two hiking buddies and I were fed burgers, guacamole, clams, beer, and salmon-cream-cheese bagels with coffee. Our angels gave and never asked for compensation. We swam in the Delaware River, we set off fireworks, and sat on the porch with music.
Being seen and supported lifted my spirits. The trip off trail was a chance to be reminded of my community at home and how much they support my journey. When we were dropped off in Port Clinton I felt excited again. I was eager to hike. The temperatures had cooled down, and the weather looked good for the week. In the late afternoon sunshine the post office became a hiker hub.
I saw old trail faces and made new friends. Hikers dried clothes, opened drop boxes, caught up on trail gossip, and shared news from up and down the trail. The bonds feel easier and closer now that we’re moving father north. As the hiker community formed around me I felt comfortable and at peace with my place on the trail.
The funk is gone (so is Pennsylvania) and I’m breathing easier.
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