No Questions: The Real-World (Lack of) Curiosity About My Hike

Hello Trek friends! After a seven month hiatus, I hope you’ll accept me back as one of your stalwart bloggers and adventurers. I’ve wanted to come back to you for quite awhile now, but was unsure what to write about as I am currently stashed in a soul-crushing corporate job and only dreaming of adventures to come. Then my friend and fellow thru Puma told me that if I just started writing, the words would come. So here I am. Recapturing my feeling of connectedness to all of you and reflecting seriously about my AT journey and things to come.

Recapturing my feeling of connectedness . . . this actually wasn’t something I knew I was missing until I saw Puma yesterday. We slipped into an easy conversation about our favorite mountains, worst injuries, and hairiest nights in the backwoods. We played the name game – Did you meet Bigfoot? Do you know Beehive? Little Bear was a beast (in the best way possible). Did you see Cheeks carry her full pack up Katahdin? That was crazy, but pretty cool. And I realized, as we talked plantar fasciities and rolled ankles, sewing up clothes in inappropriate places while still wearing them, the relative merits of regular and ultra light gear, and opinions of hostels and towns, how much of a community we are. How much of a culture we are. Or technically, and as an anthropologist I feel the need to be technical about this, how much of a subculture we backpackers are. Talking to Puma was like walking into a party full of people who think that everything you say makes sense and all your (dirty hiker) jokes are funny. In other words – awesome.

Talking to Puma was also like putting down a really heavy pack for a few minutes. Thru-hikers (and other intense adventurers – I’m talking to you, you LASH and section hikers, you rock climbers, you mountaineers, you surfers – you know who you are) build up a stock of crazy experiences that I think, unless you’ve always lived a crazy adventuring life, fundamentally alters how we see the world. I’ll talk for myself now though, as everyone’s journey is personal and I’ve probably generalized too much already.

I didn’t believe I could thru-hike before I left. I also had no conception of the things I’d do while on the trail: climb 10,000 foot mountains, sing Wicked at the top of my lungs on top of those mountains, live through a spider infestation in my tent, filter mud to get drinking water, spend terrified nights alone in the woods, act like wooden planks laid on the trail were “speed ups” and zoom along them humming the Mario Bros. music, hitchhike, ask strangers for food, sleep in strangers’ homes, meet more new people in six months than I have in the last four years, eat more food in six months than I have in the last four years, cry alone, cry with Beast, cry on the phone with Kraig, cry with Mambo, laugh uncontrollably with those same people (usually, but not always, at different times). . . the list  goes on. I also realized that I don’t need or want the stuff we accumulate so easily (you can read about how I get rid of many of my extraneous belongings in an older post). I carried my house with me, ate breakfast and dinner in different places every day, and kept a good book or two on my phone. Throw in Kraig, add a pillow, and I’m set for life.

No extra stuff, but definitely packing the essentials!

When I got home, however, I was astounded at how little people wanted to know about my trip. Please, if you’re my friend and you’re reading this, don’t feel obligated now to pepper me with questions about the trip. Bear with me for the rest of this post and you’ll see it’s ok. 

My most ardent supporters generally asked somewhere between four and six questions about my trip (except a few – you also know who you are). The general pattern was, “Oh you’re back.” Like I wasn’t just gone for six months, but had just walked around the block. “How was it?” Life-changing, world-altering, mind-boggling. “That’s cool. Did you see any bears?” Um. Did you hear my last answer? But yes, yes. Bears are a thing. “What was your favorite part?” Oh geez. Here’s a random memory. “That’s cool. Are your feet better?” No, not really. “Ok. Want to watch a movie?”

At first I was surprised by these reactions to my trip. I  kept waiting for that glorious moment when someone would engage with me on it, really talk to me about it. Surely someone out there wanted to drink a little beer and listen to some crazy stories?

On the trail, a crazy story could get you a little beer and a lot of beer could get you some crazy stories!

Or, failing that, surely some of my friends loved me enough to act interested for more than a hot second. After awhile though, I recognized the pattern and stopped expecting anyone to ask more than the stock questions. I can now sum up my entire experience in thirty seconds and repeat my happy, canned answer faithfully to anyone who inquires. And this, this summation of a six-month journey into a thirty-second sound-byte, this feeling of frustration that no one around me sees how I’ve changed when all I feel inside is like a new person, this sensation of being slowly forced back into the box from which I escaped when I stepped foot on Springer, this is the pack I was able to put down with Puma.

“Nobody puts Baby in a corner” reworked for me:  “Nobody puts Outlaw back in the box!”

Early on, I felt frustration, resentment, and anger. Did no one really care enough to ask a few more questions? But then I had a seminal moment; I found out I wasn’t the only one experiencing this strange dysphoria. This gave me pause. It’s not that you, my friends, don’t care about me. It’s not that you don’t care about the adventure, the change, the transformation. At the end of the day, it boils down to two things. The first is that, unless you have a comparable experience in your past – you likely have no metric to which to compare this experience. You don’t necessarily know what questions to ask or how to engage with us in this new place we’ve found. And that means I need to do a better job talking about my trip when you do ask. I need to revamp my thirty-second sound-byte to be less about bears and more about following your passion, your heart. I need to tell you less about the giant pizzas we scarfed down at every opportunity and make sure you know that this was a huge risk that paid off in spades in terms of experience and growth. The second thing I need to do is worry less about it entirely. My adventure was and always has been for me. I will focus more on the positive changes it instilled in me and less about externalizing the experience (except perhaps here, where if you’re reading this I rather assume you’re interested in thru hikers’ experiences). Both of the changes, you see, are on me, not you.

So all in all – this is an apology. It’s an apology from me to you for not thinking through this vein of thought sooner, for not trusting your support when I know I have it, and for sometimes feeling alone at home when in reality I’m surrounded by a great deal of love. I hope you’ll accept it and forgive me all those times when I tried to tell you just one more hiking story! I’m putting the emotional pack down permanently now and focusing instead on getting my tried and true Baby Deuter back out on the trail for our next adventure.

If you’re a thru having a similar experience, I hope this post helps. And if not, I’d love to hear about your post-hike experiences with friends and family in the comments.

 

 

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Comments 11

  • Gail Barrett : Jun 5th

    Excellent post. We are only 700 miles into our flip flop thru hike and I can already relate. We had to go home for a short break to let the snow melt, and while our friends listened politely to our stories, we could see the disconnect. This world is just too different. Only other thru hikers can relate.

    Reply
    • Nicole : Jun 8th

      I can’t imagine the disconnect a thru hiker experiences. My longest outing has been 6 nights and my people 100% don’t get it at all so I really no longer talk to them about hiking or camping etc. That’s ok (they certainly have pursuits that I don’t get) but it is a bit isolating.

      Reply
  • Michael Sweet : Jun 5th

    #Truth

    Reply
  • Glenn Detrick : Jun 5th

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. 99.9%+ of the population just can’t relate what you’ve done to their own experiences. And that’s what everyone tries to do — relate things they hear and people who they listen to their own experiences. People are mostly about themselves, or trying to relate themselves to the rest of the world. And since so few people have such real adventures, they really don’t understand — or, more importantly, how to understand — what you’ve done and what it means to you.

    2. If #1 is correct (and I think it is), it’s nothing personal; it’s not your fault. So doing anger or frustration about it doesn’t make sense.

    3. The absolutely good news is that YOU KNOW the value/benefit of what you’ve been through and how it has given you pespective on so many things. My advice: Don’t worry about what other people think (or don’t think); bask in the personal success you have achieved. Feel good about yourself, you’ve earned it.

    4. A friend of mine just sent me a book titled, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life”. I haven’t read it yet, but I was pleased that my friend said, “You could have written this book.” I hope from your adventure you have derived a supreme sense of self-confidence. This, in the end, will lead you to not caring/worrying that others don’t understand your journey.

    Good luck.

    Reply
    • Outlaw : Jun 20th

      Mr. D- thanks for the thoughts. I’d love to hear more about that book when you’re done! Perhaps I’ll even see if I can snag it from my library. 🙂

      Reply
  • Nancy Dore : Jun 6th

    Beautifully written and so important for you to have written and us to read. As I get older I have realized that at some point everyone goes through something in their lives that changes them. It can be a tragedy, a job lose, a love lost, an accident or something wonderful that changes their lives in a profound way. Gratefully, yours has been something wonderful that you accomplished. As is often the case only those that have been through or survived that event can truly understand. We are so grateful that you have had this life changing experience and are able to write about it in a way that gives the rest of us a peak into your magical and amazing world of thru hiking. We are very proud of you and can’t wait to see what the future holds for you. – much love – Nancy and John

    Reply
    • Outlaw : Jun 20th

      Nancy – thank you for the comment and, more importantly, thank you for all the love and support you showed when I first embarked on this crazy venture. Who just leaves real life to go hike in the woods? No one sane, but you took it in stride and have been among my most stalwart supporters. For that, I have been and continue to be most grateful.

      Reply
  • Scott Cunningham : Jun 6th

    Rest assured there are many of us who could sit and talk with you for hours about your trip and are truly interested in every detail and every though and revelation you had over the entire hike. For those of us who have yet to accomplish what you have live our lives thru you and others adventures. I long for the day I’m able to say I’ve walked every mile and touched the sign atop Katahdin. In the meantime we’ll continue to be a LASH and listen to people like you who have been there and done it.

    Thanks for sharing your journey!
    Scott

    Reply
    • Outlaw : Jun 20th

      Scott – I would LOVE to share a beer and hear your adventures too. What’s next for you? When are you back out on the trail? I’m shooting for Mountain-to-Sea in early 2018, followed by something crazy in 2019.

      Reply
  • Zoë Symon : Jun 19th

    So good. So true.

    I had this happen to me as well, but I had another strange factor: when there was someone who really wanted to know, I found it hard to communicate the depth of my experience. So, I wanted people to ask, but didn’t necessarily know what to say when they did. I found it hard to tell these people how I could be dirty, sweaty, hungry, and occasionally in pain or tired and still be having the time of my life and growing in ways I never thought possible. With this in mind, I think your point about focusing less on trying to externalize the experience is spot on. I will try to do the same.

    Reply
    • Outlaw : Jun 20th

      Zoë – that’s so true, TOO. That’s why my “30 second soundbyte” is about really tangible, easy-to-relate-to things. “Oh, we were hungry.” “Oh we were dirty.” You start to say things like, “It was an existential experience wherein I questioned every decision I’ve ever made or ever will make in my life,” and people start to look at you funny. I’m really struggling with this right now as I prep to give a public talk about my hike – I have no idea which direction to go in – how to convey this experience. Any thoughts would be welcome.

      Reply

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