We Heard the Call, We Answered… Now What?
There is a particular day in every aspiring thru-hiker’s life where we suddenly heard the call of the wild, or for me in particular, Katahdin’s beautiful voice in my dreams. All of a sudden the future hiker’s life changes, and the call is answered, no matter the cost. Many of us worked over time, saving for years, to prepare for day one of the Appalachian Trail. Countless sleepless nights are spent fretting over gear, researching, reading over maps… only to have the AT throw out every single plan made from day one. Suddenly, all of the time between that first moment of longing to that first step on the trail collapses into one beautiful moment when all of the preparation was worth it, and the journey of a lifetime begins.
And then we hiked. We hiked through the snow. We hiked through gusting winds and freezing rain. And more rain… and still more rain. We hiked in blistering heat on rough and blistered feet. We hiked through the rough mental days. We hiked for the smiles, for the sunny days, for a warm bed in town, for that breathtaking view. Angels helped us on our way and we made lifelong friends. We laughed, we cried, and we soaked in every sunrise and sunset as if it was our last. We lived.
And then one day, suddenly, the journey is over.
Maybe it is over due to sickness. Maybe it is over because of injury. Maybe just one more day of rain would have driven you insane.
Or you actually made it. You hiked over 2,000 miles. The goal is complete. Time to go back down the mountain and re-enter civilization.
On that last day, the long -distance hiker, who has lived in the forest for roughly half a year, is shoved into a noisy plane, train, or bus, and very quickly transported back home.
The senses are overwhelmed. Thoughts race around your mind. “Why does everyone have so much stuff?” “Why is it SO LOUD all the time?” “These walls are so claustrophobic, how did I live like this before?” “Why am I STILL SO HUNGRY?!”
Then… we’re home. We take some time to rest. We go back to work. Start a new routine. Adjust to society’s standards. Or try to. And for many of us, post-trail depression rears its ugly head. There are no blazes in the real world to guide us. Our worries have gone from simple needs such as finding water and shelter, to the many demands of the modern world. It can become overwhelming very quickly.
So, to the class of 2018, I know you have already prepared for the AT. Most likely every moment of at least the past year has led up to this spring. You have all the gear, your shakedowns are done, and now Katahdin awaits you. However, not all of your planning is done. Please prepare for what happens when you return home. Make goals that stretch beyond your thru-hike, instead of returning lost and waiting for something to happen. Don’t think that post-trail depression won’t happen to you, because it most likely will. I am not trying to scare you, just informing you of an ugly side to long-distance hiking which, in my opinion, is not talked about enough.
Here is how some of the class of 2017 is handling life after the trail:
“When I first got home from the trail it was June. I’d been diagnosed with the dreaded Lyme disease. Even though I was physically unable to continue hiking, being off trail for that month was killer on my mental health, and seeing all of my friends’ photos of the trail posted to social media made it even worse. I hadn’t been that depressed in years. In the long run, though, I’m glad I was forced to go home. When I returned to the trail in late July I knew what going home meant & it motivated me to make it to Katahdin! It also gave me an insight on what would happen if I returned home without a plan for my life. So when I finally came home for good in late November I enjoyed the holidays & started researching outdoor jobs. In January I got certified as a wilderness first responder so that I could apply to some wilderness therapy guide jobs. I’m currently in NC because tomorrow is my first interview & if I get the job I’ll be moving to Asheville. I knew when I got home from the trail I was going to have to find a way to get paid to live outdoors. The trail did wonders for my anxiety & my overall outlook on life. Everyone told me good luck but I found a job where 16 days out of every month you get paid to go backpacking! Hopefully they’ll hire me so my dream can come true.” –Shutterbug
“When I got back I actually had to move in with my folks; something I haven’t done since high school. I was going stir crazy; ended up getting a job at a nearby REI, to stay busy more than anything else. I was pretty sure my old job would hire me back in a month or two and I was also hoping on an opportunity to join a film crew for a film about thru-hiking.
Both ended up falling through and I was pretty bummed out for a while. Still am, frankly. I’ve been pursuing jobs with parks and such thinking that would help but I have come to realize that it’s really just a means to an end.
Mostly I think about heading west and tackling the PCT whenever I can.” –Rhys Hora
“After having to get off the trail due to injury in the Whites, depression really set in. Two weeks later my baby brother took his life and I fell deeper into depression and went on meds. Long story short, I’m planning some great hikes this year, including finishing the LT with Hootie this summer. So, things are getting brighter.” –Barry Hudson
“I didn’t think I would have a hard time adjusting to life back in the real world. For some reason, I just thought I would be ready for it, ready for normal life again. Ha. I was so wrong. True, I had the ache of not being able to finish the trail in one go for a legit thru-hike, so that definitely punched me in the gut. That was heartbreak for me. For a while I thought I was over it, but the truth is I’m still not; it still bothers me. I went through a phase where I thought I was adjusted to real life again, and then suddenly I was back in the dumps. And stayed there for a while. Once you spend a significant amount of time on the trail, the trail runs through your soul, and no matter how miserable or dirty or tired you remember being, there’s a part of you that wants to live life as a nomad. In normal life now, the expenses and responsibilities of being an adult are annoying sometimes, which has contributed to a lot of stress. For me, personally, I had to figure out my relationship with God again; I went on a retreat that helped start that process. And I dream about getting back out there to finish the trail this coming fall. That keeps me going too, big time. I think about it all the time. I think being able to look back at my pictures, remember the people and experiences, and write about my time on the trail has helped me remember how big of an accomplishment it was to even do what I have done so far. It’s been a rough six months since having to get off trail, but I have a plan to get back out there and finish the AT. After that, who knows!” –Vulture
“I still am homeless and looking for intelligent employment. The support, though, has been amazing. Being depressed is not the end, just a moment remembering dirty socks are still in my pack.” –Pat Patron
“I went more or less straight from the trail into the Peace Corps. Finding myself in a pretty conservative society in Ghana has been hard to adjust to after the trail. I spend a lot of time planning and fantasizing about a 2020 PCT thru-hike. There’s just nothing else like waking up, walking, and going to sleep.” –Dogmouse
“Not depressed, but I have bursts of anger over the common idiotic discourtesies and stupidity of the average city dweller. Everyone is in such a hurry and so self-centered and just plain dumb. I am having trouble relating and no one gets me. I have joined a hiking club here, but it’s frigging Oklahoma. You have to drive two hours to find a foot path longer than ten miles and four to find it with elevation changes. Sigh. Well, maybe a little depressed.” –Reset
“Suffering post-trail depression pretty bad. Got home and kinda curled up into a ball. Got back to work too quickly and didn’t give time to process things. Moved in with my girlfriend and things are getting better, but the depression is very real.” -Trailien
And as for me, I had to get off trail after about 700 miles due to injury. Going home without accomplishing your goal makes it that much harder. I am currently working at my old job, and crashing with my folks on their farm. I gave up my apartment and all of my savings to hit the Appalachian Trail; now it is back to square one. The idea of being tied down in a lease again terrifies me. I have developed problems with claustrophobia and my anxiety, which had all but disappeared on trail, has become worse upon returning home. However, the weather is warming up and soon spring will return. I have been going on short hikes, reintroducing my knees to ups and downs. If all goes well I will be out there again soon, slowly finishing what I started.
Good luck, aspiring thru-hikers of 2018. You have made it this far; now it is time to see where the trail takes you. On your worst days, remember there are some of us who would give anything to be back on the AT, even on the bad days.
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I don’t normally have a a problem with depression but there have been episodes. As such, I was thinking that, since I live in Alabama and I am originally from Georgia, would it help the depression to hike SOBO? It would be like I was “walking home”. Thoughts?
I don’t think direction would factor in that much; going sobo would just make the trip home logistically easier.
When people finish they’re usually thrilled to be done and can’t wait to go back home; I know the group around me felt that way. It kinda creeps up on you a few weeks after getting home