There is No “Done”: Reflections on a Completed AT Thru-Hike
I woke up this morning and, by habit, clicked the weather app on my phone. I blinked at the blue light and sighed: four of the next ten days promised rain. On this trail, nothing is as disheartening as a weather forecast punctuated with rainclouds and lightning bolts. Rain means that my tent will flood. Rain means that I will be walking on shriveled feet in squishy socks for hours on end. Rain means that everything I own will smell like a wet dog until I can dry out at my next town stop, which is likely days away.
How many days? I wondered. I blinked, stretched, and tried to calculate; tried to remember where I was and where I was headed next.
And then my ceiling fan came into focus. I realized I was sleeping on an actual mattress with actual sheets, and I realized that the farthest I would have to walk today was across the street to my mailbox. I realized that I had summited Katahdin, finished my thru-hike, and flown home to Virginia, and that, blessedly, I would never have to hike in the rain again if I didn’t want to. (I certainly do not want to.)
But you wouldn’t know any of that, would you? The last time I updated this blog was four months and eighteen hundred miles ago. I was in Tennessee. Tennessee! At that point I had walked less than a fifth of the trail. I was still so enthusiastic about hiking that rain didn’t bother me: it was a challenge – a novelty, even – rather than a major inconvenience and discomfort.
Oh, to be so young and vibrant again.
When I hit Virginia, I started hiking seventeen to twenty-two miles a day. My mornings began at five and I rarely got in bed before nine. I took very few zeroes, too antsy to just sit around. On the zeroes I did take, I did little more than sleep. I pitter-pattered around with a few blog post ideas, even wrote a couple paragraphs here and there…but y’all. I was just worn out All. The. Time. I realized somewhere around New Jersey that I would not have the time or energy to type out a coherent thought until I was done hiking.
But now that I’m back home, basking in the luxury of four walls, dry feet, and not having to hike every single day, I can finally spin my experiences into words.
Yesterday I bumped into an old friend at the grocery store. “How was your hike?” she asked me.
“Uhhhhhhh…” I floundered. The best I could do was offer up a bunch of single words that, even in context with each other, were entirely insufficient in describing the past five-and-a-half months: “Hard. Fun. Rewarding. Scary. Wild. Amazing.”
What could I say? How could I articulate the breadth of physical, emotional, and spiritual breaking and healing? How could I explain the misery and ecstasy, the baffling paradox of joyful suffering, that comes with hiking a 2,200-mile trail? I cannot describe the agony of walking twenty miles through driving rain to someone who has not walked twenty miles through driving rain. I cannot explain the awe of waking up to a rainbow mountaintop sunrise to someone who has not woken up to a rainbow mountaintop sunrise. I cannot talk about the magic of the trail – how I always made it to shelter just before it started raining, or how my friend Red Panda found cash on the ground every time he was running low, or how my dead Dad visited me every night as owl, hooting softly in the trees above my tent until I fell asleep – without sounding like I’ve been in the woods way, way, waaaaay too long.
I just can’t explain it. I can barely make sense of it myself.
After Dad died, life seemed to follow a different order. His loss was a tsunami-sized dismantling of what I believed, what mattered, and what I thought I could control – a complete reversal of my previous notion that life was stable and secure. It was a terrible, and necessary, awakening. Grief taught me to live by a different set of rules: to not only expect, but accept, the unexpected.
This lesson prepared me for the trail more than anything else could. Every day brought something I didn’t want to face – weather I didn’t want to hike in, terrain I didn’t want to hike over, mountains I didn’t want to climb up or down. Sometimes I got sick, sometimes I got injured, and almost all of the time I was exhausted. My gear broke. I ran low on food. Plans came together and fell apart constantly. I had to make concessions to the forces of the trail every day. It was bend and flow, or break.
I think that the greatest challenge of both thru-hiking and grief is accepting what is rather than what could or should be.
Don’t get me wrong: there was resistance. I grouched and whined and moaned and shed a LOT of tears. I spent a solid week before Mahoosuc Notch panicking about how I was going to make it through the mile-long boulder field. (Apparently there are some people who enjoy rock climbing. I am not one of them.) I pored over my map, desperate to find a route around the Notch, any blue-blazed bypass trail at all – but there was nothing. Nada! I just had to do it.
The only way out was through.
And you know what? I came out on the other side…and I was okay. I was a little shaken and a little banged up, but I was okay.
When I first started the trail in March, I spent a lot of time trying to resist grief. I told myself – and you, readers – that I was hiking to deal with grief, but the truth I didn’t want to admit was that I was trying to distract myself from it. Logically, I knew that the only way to process a feeling is to let yourself feel it – that the only way out is through – but I resisted anyway. It was easier, I thought. I mean, grief is painful. Grief is horrible. Grief is a sorrow that rises from the deepest part of your soul, and when you allow it to reach its fullness, the intensity will leave you breathless, flat on the floor, wondering whether you will survive. One of our most primal instincts is to avoid suffering. To choose suffering – to make yourself really, really feel it – is hard.
I didn’t want to do it. Didn’t think I could.
But the trail has a way of breaking you down to your rawest, most honest self. When you’re alone in the woods for hours a day, every day, focused on the primitive act of survival, you lose the protective shell that keeps you safe in the so-called “real world.” Before I started my hike, I was someone who smiled through pain, pretended to not feel as deeply as I really did, and acted like I was okay even when I very much was not. A couple months of hiking stripped that all away. Whatever rose up inside of me had to come out: joy, fear, anger, excitement, worry…and grief. The realest, deepest despair.
The trail had its way with me. It was another lesson in acceptance: if I was going to thru-hike, I couldn’t not feel. I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts and feelings all day and suppress the one terrible thing that dominated them.
It’s a pretty weird feeling, bawling your eyes out in the middle of the woods. At first I felt exposed and intensely embarrassed, even though there was usually no one around, but that faded quickly. I got pretty comfortable crying anywhere, any time. Occasionally I would wander up on someone, or someone would wander up on me, but I never felt the need to dry my eyes and put on a happy face: the bystander would quietly and solemnly nod in acknowledgement of my tears, as if to say, I get it. Hiking fucking sucks.
If I hadn’t gotten my trail name so early, somebody might have christened me “Waterworks.” It wasn’t just the loss of my Dad that fueled my tears – it was everything. I cried over the still, moody silence of pine forests. I cried over the cheerful, carefree scampering of squirrels. I cried at the delicate nature of tiny flowers and particularly small frogs. I cried knowing the trail would end, and I cried wishing it would end sooner. The crying was excessive but very needed. I always felt a little more whole after, simultaneously mourning and celebrating the fleeting sights and sounds of the trail.
It’s a source of constant heartbreak to be aware of the ephemeral – to know and feel the passage of time; to sense tangible, vibrant life slipping toward the cold permanence of non-existence. Even as a child, my awareness of death was a fixture of fear. I remember looking around at my sixth birthday party and thinking, All these people will be dead one day. (I was a highly anxious kid.) There would be an Earth, but the people I loved would not be on it. It was almost impossible to imagine, but I forced myself to think about it until I was in tears.
In a similar way, I spent many hours of hiking trying to imagine a landscape different from the one before my eyes. How many cycles of birth, growth, death, and decay had this forest seen? What did these mountains look like before glaciers advanced – or were there mountains at all? How many millenia did it take this ravine to form, and what would it look like in another ten thousand years?
There was a frightening weight and wisdom to all that change, millions of iterations of the same sky and water and bedrock, that made me even more aware of – and oddly, more at peace with – humanity’s flash-in-the-pan existence. Even the Appalachian Mountains were fallible, carved and folded into their present form by calamitous, earth-shattering forces. And yet they lay under my feet as steady and solid as anything. All those millions of years of rising, retreating, erupting, and eroding had shaped them into something so wondrously beautiful that thousands of people like me decided to walk the length of them each year. It was a little dizzying to think about – how for a very brief moment of my very brief life, I got to experience the majesty of something so ancient and enduring. Something so deeply altered, but not destroyed.
Six-year-old me would be amazed to see that life goes on without at least one person whose absence I could not imagine. Hell, twenty-five-year-old me is amazed. I spent a lot of nights on trail weeping in my tent, the ache of grief so deep I was sure that my bones would turn to dust, or that the setting sun would fall behind the mountains in sympathetic mourning and never rise again. But the sun would rise the next morning and I would too, and it would be a beautiful day of hiking and crying and coming to terms with the way things were. Every day was a painful, powerful rinse-and-repeat of resistance and acceptance.
I guess that’s how healing works, isn’t it?
Somewhere late along the trail, I realized that there is no being “done” with grief. There will never be a day in which the void of my loss will be completely filled, or the pain completely dulled. Eventually I’ll be able to or visit Dad’s grave or listen to his voicemails without having a sobbing, snotting, I-can’t-bear-this breakdown, but there will never not be a stab of breathtaking disbelief when I remember that he’s gone forever.
And I’m okay with that. I’m glad for it. Grief – in whatever intensity it presents – is protective, commemorative. It’s an eternal and supernatural connection, a bridge between earth and the not-so-far-away place Dad dwells. All along the trail I sensed him near, as close as if he was walking beside me.
Grief keeps my Dad alive.
The day I realized all of these things, I knew I would be okay. It wasn’t a definitive revelation or a conscious Hey, everything’s going to be alright!, but a sensation of fullness, of wholeness. I guess you could say it was supernatural. Maybe it was sent by Dad himself. All that walking, all those high mountaintops and low, low valleys, had led me to a calm, steady place in between.
On my way down from Katahdin the day I finished my thru-hike, I ran into another hiker who had also just summited. We stopped and congratulated each other, all smiles, and made small talk. There was no rush to be anywhere. This was it. We were done.
“How do you feel?” I asked him.
His eyes drifted in thought. It took him a few seconds to decide. “Peaceful,” he said at last.
It was an unexpected word. It was a powerful and cutting word because once it was spoken, I realized it was exactly how I felt, too. I’d been searching for it without realizing. I let it sink in for a second, absorbing its perfection.
“Me too,” I replied.
I wish you all very happy trails.
Credit for featured image goes to Adventure Together. Thanks, Lookout! https://www.youtube.com/c/AdventureTogether1
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