The Waiting Place

You don’t start a thru hike casually. The parts of your life you have to move or put on hold are just too big. You end a lease, quit a job. You leave a girlfriend, stash your stuff. You go out there with the idea of being gone a long time. You go out there with freedom on your mind, and possibility, and when you think of coming back, you imagine yourself changed, grown, different. You think of a new you.

This new you excites you, and at the same time, you have no idea who she’ll be.

So what happens when you’re not gone a long, long time? What happens when injury or heartbreak forces you back home before you’re finished? Before the metamorphosis has fully taken hold and wrought the change you wanted?

Well, if you have any notion of going back out eventually or even of doing something different but equally epic, you can’t really start a new life yet—that life you imagined the new you would have dreamed up on the trail, painted in careful detail, and known with a certainty approaching pure gold was, finally, the right life for you.

Instead, you come home to limbo … you come home to The Waiting Place.

Limbo looks different from person to person. For some it might be a couch in a friend’s living room, for some it’s your same old bed in your same old home you left behind. For some it’s a hostel half a mile from the trail.

For me, it’s Mom and Pop’s basement, which, for a 44-year-old woman who was married ten years and then lived alone for ten years, is a strange but good place to land. Although some of my friends have arched an eyebrow at the news, to me it feels rational, straightforward: I get time to heal while sorting out what’s next and my parents get help with cooking, housework, and downsizing.

The wisdom of my choice of landing pad notwithstanding, it is still a Waiting Place, where doubts can fester, questions blossom, and wonderings abound.

I didn’t finish my thru-hike; I got badly injured, and I’ve been off trail healing now for what feels like eons. Besides, thru-hiking and I weren’t on the greatest terms, let’s face it. There’s definitely no way I can summit Katahdin this year and complete a full thru-hike.

Is that failure?

Because I’m still in limbo, I can’t say yet.

I’ve been here long enough now to realize limbo is a significant enough phase to warrant naming and exploring as a stage, as a legitimate part of my thru-hike, if you will let me use the word “thru-hike” to denote whatever this mid-life crisis/journey thing is that I’m conducting.

Given that a huge part of the appeal of long-distance hiking is covering territory, accumulating miles, passing physically through space—moving literally forward—I’m sure you can imagine how stagnant, how pointless it feels to be chillin’ downstairs in the house you grew up in, week after week. Yes, I’m helping my folks. Yes, I’m exercising. Yes, I’m doing (interesting, useful) work in my old field. And yes, I’m writing and reading and connecting with friends.

But the limbo-y feeling is not ameliorated by these stabs at enterprise. Waiting is its own thing, and, activity dabbling notwithstanding, it’s feeling very much like idleness. And idleness feels like boredom, and boredom has some similarities to depression, and … can you see how easily this could degenerate into something ugly and frightening?

Then, too, The Waiting Place has a way of creating an identity crisis. On trail, I was Notebook, a thru-hiker, or at least a LASHer (long-ass section hiker). I was doing this incredible thing that everyone admired. I was special.

Now I’m just Matti. Not yet new-improved, post-AT-hike Matti; I’m just limbo Matti. And I know, on some level, that there’s nothing wrong with that. Having a period of stillness in our chaotic world is a gift. I get that. There’s probably just as much for me to learn here in stillness as there is while putting the miles behind me, if not more. What it is that I’m learning, though, I’m probably too close to see.

What it will take for me to discover it, perhaps only more waiting will tell.




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Comments 14

  • Lisa : Aug 26th

    LASHer? That’s a great term, I haven’t heard that one. I hope you heal quickly and continue pursuing your dream.

  • George Turner (AKA Old Growth) : Aug 26th

    I’m in the same boat. Although being retired makes limbo feel pretty much like home. I came home to visit my wife and dogs, slipped on the stairs and tore my rotator cuff. Going back September 15th to hike the SOBO leg of my planned flip. This will leave Harpers Ferry to Katahdin for next year. Girl, you just have to play the hand you’re dealt. Nothing else to do.

    • Notebook : Aug 26th

      Old Growth, you’re not wrong. I’m trying to accept it. Trying hard. 🙂

      You are starting in Marion, right? I’ve been watching your progress on Facebook, happy you’re going to get back out there. Too bad you’re going over territory I already covered or it would be great to hike together.

  • Maria : Aug 26th

    Love to see you finding meaning and growth in the midst of discomfort– both physical and mental. What is so special about your writing is the way you capture the immediacy of a moment, a feeling. Although I have spent time with you during this period (though not enough… Let’s fix that), this post provides a window into your thoughts that really helps me understand your experience. Keep on writing– I can’t get enough!

    • Notebook : Aug 27th

      Thank you, TM! I so appreciate your support and encouragement! xox

  • Sprout : Aug 26th

    I too am in The Waiting Place. I said thru hiking wasn’t for me, maybe I’d section hike, maybe I’d just do weekends, maybe maybe maybe. None of it sounded good & I’m back in planning mode for next year. It’s never in our plans to have to bail out and, especially for me that it was going to be SO EARLY into my hike. You just have to take what life throws you & figure out how to work with it.

  • Theresa : Aug 26th

    Longshanks and I (Miss T) are also in the waiting place. We finished half our hike and came home for multiple reasons. We have been couch surfing for about a month now and the “limbo” feeling has been more stressful than either of us thought it would be.

    • Notebook : Aug 27th

      Yeah, you don’t expect hanging out to be so hard, do ya?

  • Gretchen : Aug 27th

    Limbo Matti has some wonderful insight and a hopeful outlook. ? I can relate to this feeling. A few years back when I jumped into teaching and it felt like home, like if found my calling, I had to jump back out of it for a few years in order to home school my son. I was in Limbo Land the whole time. Different aspects of me started to grow and learn in the meantime, and now, ankle deep into the world of education I am starting to figure out which current to ride so that the professional me can match or reflect the spiritual and emotional me. It’s been a long ass hike! ? I have been really loving reading your story, old friend!

    • Notebook : Aug 27th

      Thank you for the kind words, GLO-M. I’m glad you found something to relate to here, that’s always my purpose in writing, to have some impact on readers. Much love to you!

  • sway : Aug 27th

    I feel your pain, yet I’m no longer in the waiting place. Injury benched me and my comeback was equally unsuccessful. I expected to mentally break but wasn’t prepared to physically break. It’s devastating. I gave up everything to chase this dream that’s now out of reach even though my resolve is strong as ever. The taste in my mouth every time I have to correct someone who calls me a thru hiker is so bitter. There’s no shame in (someone else) section hiking but that’s not what I set out to do. So I sit, lost, in my parents guest room, while I read of friends celebrating at the finish line. The weight of failure sits on one shoulder and the weight of starting life over on the other. It shouldn’t be so melodramatic, but it just is. Anyway, thanks for articulating these strange trail feelings so well, as you always have. I’ll try to draw from your optimistic hopefulness. I bet the good is close enough to touch just beyond the thick haze of defeat.

    • Notebook : Sep 1st

      Wow, Sawy, this is some gorgeous writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I hope you can start to see it as something other than failure. It’s hard though, I get it. I’m scared that my comeback will fall short; my foot’s just not getting enough better even after 10 weeks … Argh. Well, be well and thank you.

  • Karyn : Aug 30th

    Hello Notebook! I’ve been following you. I think I even commented on one of your posts. First, as already noted many times by others, you are a gifted writer, I can actually feel your emotional pain. I am planning on thru-hiking next year (and Zach has given me the green-light to blog here) and you address so many of my fears especially the loneliness and frustration (that I just know I am going to experience and I am trying to mentally fortify myself to not only endure but conquer). You’ve conveyed in excruciating detail just how difficult this journey is on many levels but I want you to know that I appreciate that you have chronicled your very raw emotions and trials -especially as a woman- and laid the mental groundwork for me to use for my journey. For that, “Thank you”. I hope you heal quickly physically and emotionally so you can get back out there. I look forward to learning more from your posts.

    • Notebook : Sep 1st

      I’m so glad that what I’ve written has been helpful to you! Enjoy your planning time and best of luck to you when you get out there!


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