A Letter to the Post-Trail Thru-Hiker

Dear Thru-Hiker,

We were heroes. We were the people that your local newspaper writes articles about and people make documentaries and write books about. We stood on the top of mountains liked we own them because for those six months we did. We owned the earth beneath our feet. Those narrow dirt, rock, and root trails were our hallways. The forest was our home. The dirt on our skin was our battle armor. 

Then you came home, a trail legend. A hero in your mind only to find that nobody really cares, not really. They kept living their lives while you hit the pause button to live an amazing adventure. Now you just try to become you again. A non-hero, non-legend, non-owner of mountains. You’ve come home a changed person at least a little; deep in your core you’ve changed. Even if just a smidge. But nobody else has. They all continued to spin around on the earth that you left for six months. You put yourself inside four walls for living and work, inside four walls over wheels to get to your destination.

Soon, you’re quickly reminded of why it is that you wanted to hike in the first place. Why it is that you wanted to escape the unrelenting infrastructure of our society. Because the world, and so many people in it, are not kind. The world we live in is unforgiving, unrelenting, almost like the trail was, but this is different. You’re just supposed to pick up where you left off and be you again.  You’re trying, but can’t because you’re a thru-hiker now. You’re different. Thru-hiking is in your bones, coursing through your veins, behind your eyes and in your heart now. It’s part of you. It is you.

At first you try to bring a little bit of that trail wisdom and kindness and vulnerability to the world but it’s lost on everybody because they didn’t go through what you went through. They didn’t live the life of nomadic backpacker that you did. They didn’t cry on a mountaintop as they looked out from Katahdin.  They didn’t cry after three days of freezing rain and falling down a dozen times. They didn’t laugh in the sunshine with friends that became your family. They didn’t battle blisters, knee pain, excruciating heat, and everything else the trail throws at you. They didn’t look back and laugh at the type two fun, which is only funny after the fact. They didn’t do those things. You did those things, you and those two legs and that one heart. You tackled those thousands of miles on your own with nothing but your sheer will.

I know you’re home and you’re trying to reintegrate and it’s hard because you really just don’t fit into the puzzle anymore. It’s called post-trail blues, but it’s more of a black because there really doesn’t seem to be any color here at all.  But you’re tough. You’re a thru-hiker.  You’ll get through it just like you did those thousands of miles through wind and rain, and darkness and pain. On your own two feet with your one heart. And nothing but sheer will.

Love,

Your Fellow Thru-Hiker

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Comments 42

  • John aka Madhatter : Oct 16th

    This is one of the most insightful ways of exploring the shift. 🙏🏔🎩🤗👍

    Reply
    • bamboobob : Oct 17th

      Having thru-hiked a number of trails a number of times I can say this letter could not be more true. No one cares.

      Reply
    • Nahnee : Oct 17th

      Check out CheapRVliving on Utube with BobWells and the traveling nomad community. You might fit better there. You could also hike the Camino next July with me.

      Reply
    • john clough : Oct 18th

      At this point in my life ,i have been through a few things.My comment about “no body cares ” not true .There are people that really do care. REALLY,But do I worry
      what people think. NOPE,everyone has their opinion.I’ve got mine ,you yours ,that’s good.Even when you have an opinion that shows you have some caring to comment about it. let’s not worry about what people think of me ,but lets worry about what their worrying about what i’m thinking of them .Great article !!!!
      Kudos for your accomplishments!!

      Reply
      • Christine Taylor : Oct 23rd

        I understand when you say no one cares. For me it’s more closely, no one understands. Only other people who have pushed themselves to the same extremes can really understand. When I got home I felt isolated, no one to talk to that have any idea about how I felt. Eventually I just stopped talking about it and started planning the next hike.

        Reply
  • Marty : Oct 16th

    I love this. I’ve been following you on social media since the start of your trek. The whole time I’ve been thinking “I can’t wait till March 2020!” I’m looking forward to the experience now more than ever because I’ve seen it through the lense of you and so many others. Thank you for sharing and Thank you for your service as well!

    Reply
  • Ruth Morley : Oct 17th

    Thank you for this, Julia. You completely nailed it. Although I’m a 3 section LASHER, not a thru-hiker, I feel like my 900 mile section this year gave me many of the same experiences and feelings. Throw in the present need for crutches for 4-6 weeks (still on them) and you’ve got all the ingredients you need for some pretty low times. You expressed it well, and that helped a lot. I know this is temporary and it helps to plan future adventures, but still….

    Thanks for explaining all of this, Julia.

    Reply
    • Kris : Oct 18th

      I am just finishing the Bruce Trail, from Niagara to Tobermory, and I’m feeling much the same. Onwards and upwards I say… what adventure is calling me now? Congrats on your achievement

      Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Nov 5th

      No need for the “although,” Ruth — you are a hiker,you love it, you know the trail, you feel what Julia is writing about. I hope you get back out there soon!

      ~Pony

      Reply
  • Sushi : Oct 17th

    So true,
    And it happens again and again with every adventure you embark on!

    One you’re back among “society” it’s easy to forget what you’ve done and what you’re capable of!

    It’s a constant never ending struggle, we just need to shift our view of things, struggle = challenge, and we are familiar with challenge!

    Reply
    • R : Oct 17th

      Twos….what anissightful writing….hope that a lot of folks read what explains thru-hiking…..A PROUD GRANDMA…..NANA N. I MEANT TO WRITE. WOW….WHAT AN INSIGHTFUL WRITING…….

      Reply
  • Mark : Oct 17th

    I cried when I read this…and I only did half the trail.
    You go, girl.

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Nov 5th

      I shed a few tears, too, and I finished in September 2016. I’ve done some long-ish hikes since then (77 miles; 85 miles; 280 miles) but I still miss the community, the commonality, the hurry-up intimacy…..

      Sigh.

      ~Pony

      Reply
  • Michael : Oct 17th

    If your doing a hike, trek, adventure for any other reason than personal fulfillment, discovery, challenge etc. you will probably be somewhat disappointed in others reaction to your personal achievements. Tell just about anyone (other than other hikers) about any trip you have completed and watch their eyes glaze over in under 5 minutes. Hike your own hike.

    Reply
    • Elie : Oct 17th

      Very true, I’m not a thru hiker yet, but a day hiker and it’s the same thing. But one should do this thing for personal growth and fulfilment. In the end only we ourselves are the ones that really need to care. If we get a significant other or friend to share that experience with the better. Let the rest find their own fulfilment.

      Reply
  • Gary Frechette : Oct 17th

    I enjoyed reading the letter, thanks for sharing it. Although it wasn’t addressed to me in particular (not a thru-hiker), because my wife and I do trail magic in Maine, we certainly understand a lot of the pain that comes with “no rain, no pain, no Maine”. I think your letter is a great way to bring some ‘reality’ back into the minds of those who did the trail from GA to ME and struggle with the post-trail transition. If I were a thru-hiker, I believe it would encourage me to continue to face life as a post-trail thru-hiker.

    BTW, we’ve seen lots of your posts throughout the year and appreciated seeing your adventure. Congratulations on your thru-hike.

    Regards,
    Gary (Stover) F.

    Reply
  • Dave : Oct 17th

    Pretty much the same feeling a soldier has coming home from deployment. If you know or meet one, you’ll now understand them as well. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Julia : Oct 17th

      I’m actually a military veteran as well. I’ve deployed 2 times. I would say for me, it was very similar and yet different. I always was happy to come home from deployment. Coming home from the trail was devastating. I wish I could stay out there forever. Thank you for your kind words! I hope we can all try to relate to each other more in general! ♥️

      Reply
    • Marty D : Oct 17th

      What you do that stretches you that far and you learn to love ,despite the challenges. Becomes part of who you are. Like a soldier,you have seen and done things few others ever will. Writing a book or starting a blog post is what will show the infinitely curious (Like me) what it is all about. I am now warned and still curious as to the challenge and splendor of that long walk. Now I know that it has a ptsd all it’s own.

      Reply
  • No Doubt! : Oct 17th

    Well said! I still have some of the same feelings 6 years post trail. You can take the hiker out of the trail, but you can’t take the trail out of the hiker.

    Reply
  • Beckie : Oct 17th

    No where near as big a deal as what you guys did but after my daughter and I finished the NH 48 list I had a mild case. This seems to be common with many life events. Like new mothers getting postpartum depression. Best wishes and congrats!

    Reply
  • NoBo Stoat 17' : Oct 17th

    Yep! After a mere 2 days lingering in ME, I took a bus ride back to NYC and essentially started my post-trail meltdown when my feet touched the concrete. No one would understand the peace I found, the new direction in life I could not avoid, the dismissal of small and useless stressors, and a clear understanding between body and mind. I finally quit the tech field, and got into working and living out of doors. It’ll ruin your life in the best way!

    Reply
  • Laurie Adkins : Oct 17th

    That’s why I go to the ALDHA Gathering every year. There’s 300 to 400 people who know what you’ve done, who understand and who care. You can also get enthused about another trail, your next fix, for your hiking addiction. Sure, you can learn about the PCT and CDT by searching on your phone, but your phone doesn’t care either. The folks at ALDHA do care! You are not alone…

    Reply
  • Josh Hoover : Oct 17th

    Julia,
    I think that the letter is awesome, you definitely have a way of putting things. I agree with the no one cares part, I followed your trip the whole way and enjoyed the trip. It was cool to meet you out there and actually see that the people who are doing this are real. I hope that you and all the other through hikers know that there are a lot of us following you all and do understand even if we can only do sections and it’s on either a weekend or get to take time off normal life for a week straight to get a little taste of that. I know from personal experience now I look at all of you hiker trash as normal people that are just on a different kind of vacation trip , I just keep hoping I make it long enough to become one of you guy’s and gals that got to live it. Be safe in anything you all do and yes enjoy the trip of Life.

    Reply
  • Sunny : Oct 18th

    Sitting in the office (started this monday again after doing the PCT) and i’m reading this, NEEDING this. Thank you

    Reply
  • Michael Davis : Oct 18th

    Thank you.

    Reply
  • Randy AKA Dr. Love : Oct 18th

    Hey ROCKET…………………….. I CARE !

    PEACE

    Reply
  • Dori : Oct 18th

    This letter is dead on! I completed my thru hike (SOBO) in 2017. It took me 3 months to recover emotionally, not from being on the trail, but from coming back to society! What a change! The one thing that really pulled me through it was my trail family and my home family. I couldn’t have done it without them!! Letters like this are VERY helpful! Thank you! Even now, I still miss those mountains. I still don’t feel home! Supporting each other is what we do to survive!

    Reply
  • Josh Johnson : Oct 18th

    👏 Bravo and thanks for this moving letter. We are #hikertrashnation , we can do this!

    Reply
  • Other Brother : Oct 18th

    Wow you really nailed it! It’s been just over 3 years since my thru-hike and I’m still trying to fit back in. I yearn to get back out there on another one and live the simple and rewarding lifestyle. I loved that age doesn’t matter on the trail because we were all one out there. As a military retiree with many deployments, the trail was much different than that to me. Mentally, I did tell myself that “I’m deployed so I can’t quit” as a means to stay at it. Thanks so much for putting it in words👊OB

    Reply
  • Jen : Oct 18th

    Beautifully put. Nobody [ELSE] cares. But we did.

    Reply
  • Stephen Cunha : Oct 18th

    I not sure that long-distance hikers are “heroes.” By what measure?
    Completing a six-month active vacation that, except for some rural merchants, doesn’t really benefit anyone else. We must also appreciate how the AT and PCT are no longer wilderness treks because of the sheer number of fellow hikers, the many incursions into towns, and the near-constant cell phone connectivity (and reliance) hardly make long-distance hiking a pioneering adventure. That stated a longing to return to the simplicity of walking each day is very real. However, these same yearnings also follow Camino walking and other months-long travel abroad. Wouldn’t it be grand if we could take six-months off free from work and other responsibilities more often!

    Reply
    • Rocket : Oct 19th

      Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.

      Although you may not believe we were hero’s, the definition is above for reference. I can think of many times where people admirers our courage and achievements. Perhaps we have a different view of what a hero is. Can there not be different types of hers?

      Also I still believe the PCT and CDT are both still very much in nature. I also believe these trails are what you make them. They may not be backwoods pioneering adventures, but they are adventures nonetheless!

      I hope you find more time to enjoy the outdoors! I will be taking many more 6 months off excursions!

      Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Nov 5th

      Dadgum, Mr. Cunna! What a bitter, negative post.

      “Hero” is an overused word today, to be sure. Yet I understand the sense in which Julia is using it; I suspect anyone who has done the distance (yes, the AT still features plenty of wilderness; trust us) grasps her meaning.

      There is no special prize for “thru” hiking a long trail, but being able to take four or six months to do so can, and often does, result in a remarkable, life-changing experience. Beyond the dollars spent in trail towns — what an impoverished way to tally up impact, by the way — many people return to “synthetic life” changed in real ways. And many will slowly be sucked back into the foolish urgency of our modern world.

      Only the mindless and insecure feel superior because they’ve had the privilege of walking a long trail. In my experience, most thru-hikers revel in the experiences of others, whether it’s hiking a shorter trail, going for a long one, or simply getting off the couch for the first time in years.

      Julia: Thanks for trying to put into words what so many people feel after the transformative experience of hiking a long trail.

      ~Pony

      Reply
  • jonah manning : Oct 18th

    Thank you for this piece.

    But I would like to offer an alternative: Don’t go back to life as it was.

    I hiked the AT in ’98. Once the I ran out of trail to walk, it wasn’t the trail that mattered, any more, it was what I learned from it: the recognition that simple living, moving the body, accepting–or even choosing– my suffering, these were the things that mattered in my life.

    After finishing I never left the trail, not really. It took me a year or two to move to Montana. I lived on a long dirt road without electricity or plumbing. Now, 20 years later I still live in 800 sq feet in the Cascades of the PNW. I work, mostly standing up, not too much. I move my body every day. I am much the same man that the AT taught me to be. In no way is this an exaggeration. I am happy, very happy.

    If you were willing to leave your life for six months to walk without the certainty of success, why not keep going? Just a thought. Not for everyone. It was never about the trail.

    Reply
    • Rocket : Oct 19th

      Once I can save enough money I will be a wilderness adventurer again! Cheers!

      Reply
  • Tengo Hambre : Oct 19th

    I completed the AT in 2017. It took me over 6 months. In many ways I have never left it! It is the gift that keeps on giving every day! Know that to be true and you will be OK! You now have a skill set you did not have before and there are many trails and outdoor experiences that await you my friend! Oh and don’t forget, once hiker trash always hiker trash!

    Reply
  • Joanna Zito : Oct 22nd

    Beautiful and well put. I have only thru-hike the Vermont Long trail, a 24 day hike and have similar feelings to you. I can only imagine the way you feel! Thanks for the wonderful read!

    Reply
    • Clay Bonnyman Evans : Nov 5th

      Dear Joanna:

      No need for that “only” — you are a hiker, you have experienced the trail! No need to diminish what you’ve done … and who knows what you may do in the future, right?

      ~Pony

      Reply
  • Steve (Doppler) : Oct 24th

    Not having summited Katahdin I can’t say for sure, but from my experience I feel like this is intensified when you are forced off trail due to serious injury and not allowed to complete the adventure. You get back home and have an empty calendar that was cleared for the adventure that you’re not allowed to finish.

    Additionally you feel like you someone hit the pause button — you haven’t completed anything and you don’t know when (or if) you’ll be able to. All you really know is that you miss the trail and you feel like you’re not supposed to be at home. – Doppler

    Reply
  • Patrick Pileggi : Oct 27th

    Well written.I have a recommendation.Hike Thru again.It doesn’t cure us,it just deepens the inner reaction to the first experience.I haven’t hiked the PCT or CDT yet and may never complete them.But have 3 AT Thru’s and am not done yet.I work the winter’s and then hit the Blazes.Love the people I meet along the way.So I am basically opposed to reintegration.Peace.

    Reply
  • CP : Oct 30th

    Stay on the path, your path, and trust that you’ll recognize the destination when you get there.
    If you could have anything you wanted in life, what would it be? Are you moving towards it, or away from it?
    Remember that LIFE is a balance. Good/Bad, Commitments/Freedom, Family/Individual, Altruism/Egocentrism
    May Inner Peace Reside In Your Core.
    (Please correct the 2 items below so that your wonderful message isn’t diluted.)
    “mountains liked we own them”
    ” I an outdoorsy girl”

    Reply

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