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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