As I expected, when the sign appeared out of the mist, something clicked that hadn’t before. Though we’d been able to see Katahdin from the trail for the last few days, it still hadn’t been sinking in that I was about to finish the Appalachian Trail. As far as I could tell, this grand journey of so many months was only continuing up and over hills like it always had. Climbing up Katahdin, I did feel a stirring of something, a clenching in my stomach, my heart beating more quickly than usual. And then, after the legendary rock scrambles and the Tableland plateau, I first saw the contour of that infamous summit marker, the official northern terminus of the AT, a triangle of boards upright against the swirling clouds. Before I knew it I was sprinting, screaming, “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” leaping over rocks in the way, eyes locked on the finish line that only just now came into view. Then I was grabbing the sign, it was in my hands, my head pressed into the wood, the carved letters that said I had made it.
Part of the thrill of doing this trail, honestly, was knowing that not everyone finishes. The average hiker starting off in Georgia is statistically more likely to quit than to make it to Katahdin. No matter how far I’d walked on the trail, I retained a huge amount of respect for the ruggedness of the trail, remaining aware that at any moment, something could end my hike. As it happened, the closer I got to the end, the more my body started giving out. The shin splints in Hanover, the foot pain throughout Maine, intermittent complaints from my knee–the issues were multiplying, not to mention all the tears in my clothing and gear. Nothing immediately threatened to push me off trail, but I could never know for sure if something might develop into something that would. Seeing the sign fifty feet ahead, I knew for the first time that I would definitely make it. I’d been waiting for 162 days with baited breath for the verdict on whether I would or not. And now it was sealed. A wonderful combination of planning, determination, and luck had allowed me the honor of succeeding. I still had those last few steps, it wasn’t over yet, but I knew I’d won. I could clear the very last bit with that sense of triumph. All the better, because finishing meant the fun was over.
I’ve been done for a week and a half. I’m back home, well-washed and comfortable. I’d thought returning to my old life would be a relief, at least in the beginning. Instead, I feel like I’ve never been gone, as if the whole thing were just a dream. That’s concerning actually. Wasn’t part of the point that I would carry the lessons and memories from it forward to enhance the rest of my life? Wasn’t I supposed to ‘find myself,’ my life permanently changed, a better, stronger man because of my journey? I’m not saying I haven’t changed, or I didn’t learn anything; I just expected that whatever I’d gained would show itself more clearly when I got home. I play back as many memories as I can from each of the fourteen states I traversed, as if locking down every detail of the trip would make it more likely to transform me.
Part of what makes my time at home so separate from the months on the trail is the total removal from the hiking community. For the entire time, whether I knew the people I was with or not, we all shared a common purpose, common complaints, common stink and ragged appearance–and we were all proud of these attributes we held in common. You could run into a hiker you’d never met before, but you could tell from his worn but functional appearance and weary friendliness that he was also a thru-hiker, and you could strike up a conversation about the terrain or the weather the last few days like it was nothing. With this strong a sense of community, the trail could always be full of laughter and positive energy, no matter the hardships. We could make do with inconvenience, with only whatever we had in our packs to work with. What a contrast to now, where I’m surrounded by the ‘normal people’ we proudly distanced ourselves from, being told it’s time to start dressing like I’m part of civilization again. Cut your hair! Get a new wallet! It’s no wonder I’m sensing such a discontinuity from the trail. I’m used to doing big beautiful miles with what felt like a grand army of others determinedly moving north, free from the phony concerns of the life I’ve since returned to.
Yet, I did return for a pretty good reason. College is starting in a couple weeks. Hopefully I will once again join a community of others setting out on an adventure. And once again I’ll be asked to confront unexpected hardship like a well-grounded tree in a storm, strong but flexible enough to bend with the gale-force winds. There are numerous exciting challenges ahead, these more mental than physical; there will be beauty in ideas, now, more than in landscape. But still, down the trail I’ll go, sometimes flying, sometimes trudging, usually uphill, never giving up. It’s a long way to the end from here. That’s the point.
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How wonderful and blessed to complete your journey as we celebrate 100 years of our national park system. Your timing is perfect, Katadin Maine was just named by Obama as the newest addition to our list of national treasures. I have no doubt you will journey far in life, no matter the direction you take.
Congratulations on your tremendous achievement, Ronen. Thank you for offering your honest and unvarnished thoughts throughout your hike, even when it would have been easier not to. Please update us periodically as you embark on your next adventure and gain perspective on the one just finished.
Warmest congratulations from all of us! Your memories, reflections, and dreams are wonderful and will enrich your lives in all of your worlds.
Do it again after your second year, or your fourth? 🙂