Trials, hardships, and lessons learned

Well it’s been a couple months since my last post and a lot has happened since then. After leaving Uncle Johnny’s hostel in Erwin Tennessee at the beginning of June, I developed tendonitis in my left foot. I also never caught up to my original group of friends. However, I met so many new people since then and my trail experience changed dramatically since I last wrote on here. I wanted physical and psychological trials to help me grow as a person but I didn’t realize how powerfully those experiences would come into play.

After my foot pain turned unbearable a few days after leaving the hostel, I took a couple days off in Roan. The last day on the trail before that was the most challenging one I’ve had. I was flooded with emotion and hated that my body was betraying me. It was the first time I considered that I might not complete my thru-hike and I was feeling dejected. Fortunately, hiking with my friends Firefly and Friendly Nate lifted up my spirits. After receiving X-rays from the local walk in clinic, I was diagnosed with tendonitis and told to take at least a week off from hiking. So I decided to shuttle up to Damascus to rest up and hang out in a more hiker friendly town. I stayed there for about 10 days and although I went a little stir crazy, it was fun. Lots of new friends were made and plenty of food and beer consumed. By the end of my reprieve, I couldn’t wait to get back on the trail.

When I started hiking again, the foot pain persisted but never reached excruciating levels again. Although it did limit how much I could walk in a day and slowed me down quite a bit. A few days after leaving Damascus, my dad came to hike for a few days and we traversed the Grayson Highlands, where the wild ponies roamed. The scenery was beautiful and we even spotted a couple black bears in the park. Those were the first ones I saw on the trail so needless to say, I was pretty excited. We spent my dad’s last night in Marion, where several hikers stayed at the same hotel. I was happy that he was able to experience the Appalachian trail culture, both on and off trail. For the last few weeks, I have been hiking with my good friend, Prof. There’s been some pleasant sections of trail recently and even though Virginia doesn’t have as many awe inspiring views and peaks as previous states, it is beautiful nonetheless. I witnessed the most breathtaking sunrise yet at McAfee knob a few days ago. The terrain isn’t too difficult around here but the mental game is harder than ever.

The weeks following leaving my friends at Trail Days were difficult. A strong feeling of loneliness took hold of me and became a persistent visitor. Even though I met new people and made friends on a regular basis, I couldn’t shake the sense of isolation. It felt as if no one really knew me and many interactions felt pointless and superficial. I wanted to be alone and connected at the same time. These seemingly hypocritical desires caused sadness and a sense of hopelessness inside of me. I had trouble staying mindful and would get carried away by my thoughts. It was hard to accept these feelings and I found myself fighting them.

But I knew that I could learn from these experiences. I have spent much of my life repressing emotions, seeing them as weaknesses and shame producing experiences. In my spiritual practice, I have learned that it is important to allow oneself to experience whatever comes up in the realms of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. I made the conscious choice to stop the war within myself and allow whatever wants to come to the surface to show itself. I want to look upon my reality with kindness and compassion. This isn’t an easy process and it takes time and patience. After running away from my deepest emotions for so many years, it makes sense that when they do surface, they have a strong intensity. The trail provides a unique opportunity for avoiding distractions and self reflection. I realized that these painful experiences weren’t caused as a result of my hike, but rather rooted deep in the past, as far back as early childhood. I fought loneliness and isolation my whole life through telling myself stories and denying what I truly felt. I couldn’t heal from the pain because I rarely felt it. It would manifest in other ways, like anger and controlling tendencies. How could I accept what I denied existed?

I don’t think someone can truly grow if they aren’t willing to face the whole of their human experience. It is comfortable to believe that we are in control of our emotions, but that is largely a convenient delusion. However, we can learn skillful ways of dealing with them and awaken from the lessons they can teach us. Only by opening to our feelings fully is it possible to accept, learn from, transform, and let go of whatever is holding us back. We don’t need to identify with them. They aren’t us. Furthermore, it is possible to realize that many emotions, both joyful and painful, are universal and connect all of us. This interconnectedness allows for the development of deep empathy and compassion for all beings.

Even though I understand a lot of these lessons at the intellectual level, I often have problems with their practice. I still judge and distract myself and get carried away from the present moment. That’s part of the path though. Real change doesn’t happen overnight and I know that vigilance and patience will lead me in the right direction.

I’m heading into Waynesboro, VA tomorrow. The town is at the beginning of Shenandoah Park, which extends for around a hundred miles of trail but also has a large river passing through it. I plan on aquablazing for about 45 miles of river, which entails renting a Kayak and spending 3 days on the river. I can’t wait!

In all honesty, I’m not currently enjoying the trail as much as I was early on in my journey. I have good days and bad days, but my heart hasn’t felt in it recently. I have grown as a person and experienced so much. I just don’t know if I want to spend the next three and a half months on the trail. Maybe I will head to Thailand earlier than expected to continue my spiritual journey. After finishing the Shenandoahs, I will hike on another sixtyish miles to Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. Once there, I may decide to leave the trail. Or not. I have mixed feelings about it but hopefully the next couple weeks will provide some clarity.

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Comments 1

  • Kim Norris : Jul 15th

    Hi Alex
    That was a very insightful posting and I have a good sense of what you are thinking and feeling these days. Thanks for sharing and being so candid.
    Whatever you decide, you have accomplished a great deal – physically and mentally – and can leave the trail without regret, if that is what you ultimately decide to do. I had hoped to meet you at some point, but we can hike segments of the trail at any time, should you decide to get off before the end.
    Stay strong and continue to get the most out of your adventure. It’s a beautiful world out there.
    Love ya,


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