Walking with Grief on the AT
Grief has been my constant trail companion.
I’m taking a different approach with this post. Nearly a third of the way through I’m ready to address one of the core reasons I’ve chosen this time in life to hike the AT. I’m reflecting on how the AT has affected my journey with loss, grief, and acceptance. Before I dive into this deeply personal topic here is a quick summary of my progress on the trail.
April 20 to May 4, Days 38-51
By the numbers:
–258 miles hiked in 14 days.
–18.5 miles per day.
–Passed 500-, 600-, and 700-mile marks.
–Passed the one-quarter mark.
–Trail magic continues.
The Virginia Blues
I last posted from Damascus, just across the Virginia border. Virginia has over 550 trail miles, more than any other state. The length of the trail in Virginia is so long a phenomenon called the Virginia Blues commonly sets in. The Virginia Blues have been attributed to numerous sources; the vast distances, the end of the honeymoon phase, a supposed decline of scenery, and monotony with trail life. For these reasons many hikers report a loss of enthusiasm and morale in Virginia.
I Brought My Own Blues from Home
I have not experienced one moment of Virginia Blues. I loved the Grayson Highlands. I’ve found the pastures and meadows a welcome change for the woods and easier on the feet. The scenery is spectacular; Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs were all first class. I continue to make new friends on and off the trail. Virginia has been a great experience with the Shenandoahs other highlights yet to come.
Despite having staved off any trail-induced Virginia Blues, the topic of the blues is still pertinent. Specifically, I’m going to reflect on my experience with the blues I brought with me to the trail. These are the blues of grief; in my case, the loss of my spouse. Whatever the label I carry these feelings and thoughts with me every day. I could no more dump them than I could my pack or boots.
Appalachian Trail Therapy
The words I write here reflect only my own personal experience. I don’t intend to write a paper on wilderness therapy or an advice column. However, writing has always helped me sort out my feelings and I hope my words encourage others who are dealing with their own issues.
I’m often asked, “Does the trail help?” The answer is simple but also complex. Yes, the trail helps. I’m healthier in mind, body, and spirit because of my time on the AT. But there are limits. The trail will never cure me or make me whole; nothing ever will.
Many well-intended people have given me much advice on grief. Much of it is just platitudes. I’m a bit of a grief counselor’s nightmare. I heard “don’t make any major life changes for a year” so often from so many people. I put no stock in that traditional time frame. Some people understood, others shook their heads as I sold, donated, or gave away most of my possessions, moved across the country, and undertook voluntary homelessness and unemployment to hike this trail. I did, however, believe and quickly embrace another basic tenet: “You never get over such a loss; it just gets easier with time.” Everything I’m writing is based on this principle.
Getting Easier with Time
Most of us instinctively believe time in the natural world and physical activity accelerates healing. I hope so because this adventure represents a total immersion into both worlds; all-day physical activity in a beautiful wilderness setting.
I took the time to look up a study conducted at Stanford on the issue. Thanks, Google. The study is here:
https://news.stanford.edu/2015/06/30/hiking-mental-health-063015/ The results are simple; walking in the natural world helps!
A 90-minute walk in a natural area reduced “rumination” — repetitive brooding on negative feelings — in participants. Brain scans also showed reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, indicating reduced stress and vulnerability to depression. The same results were not seen with participants walking in an urban environment.
This study not only gave me a new favorite word (rumination) but validated a lot of my feelings. I do feel happier and healthier walking through the woods. And that’s a good thing since I spend at least ten hours a day walking through the woods.
Those hours give me a lot of time to think. Here’s a typical pattern for me on the trail.
While I don’t appear to be overly religious on the outside I do spend time in prayer every day, typically first thing in the morning as soon as I have some space alone. My prayer time starts with some set pieces: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, Psalm 23, and then moves into a personal conversation. I always talk to Brenda at this time, tell her about the trail, the kids, my thoughts, plans, and how I miss her. I know she’s with me but I’ve never had a reply. At some point I also pray, by name, for everyone I know facing cancer. Inevitably, I give a lot of thanks for the trail, the time we had, my family, friends, and the weather (good or bad). It would be impossible to document it all; I wander all over the place.
Reflecting on the Past
I then spend a lot of time walking, with my mind free to wander. Typically in the morning a lot of memories flow into my mind. Freed of real world concerns, these memories are vivid, full color, and lifelike. Most of the time that’s good; past vacations play out before me like a movie. My favorite time with Brenda was drinking morning coffee and chatting. Obscure conversations return like I’m reading a script. Sometimes I see things I don’t want to. This is almost always an episode from her final days or some particular time of pain and suffering. Sometimes it’s just some regret from years past. I’ll spare the gory details but I see these things over and over. I just have to let the thoughts dissipate on their own, just keep walking, and they are replaced.
Enjoying the Present
Most of the day is just enjoying the present. Wondering what is around the next bend. Enjoying a view. Thinking about the next meal or town. Where should I stop and camp? This constitutes the majority of my day by far. It’s a good time.
Thinking About the Future
Finally, and usually toward the end of the day’s walk, I think a little about the future. What will I do when I’m done with this adventure? When do I start the PCT? Will I ever shave again?
That summarizes a typical day. Always a prayer, think a little about the past, a little about the future, but mostly just enjoying the present. That’s why in every picture I’m smiling. I really am happy nearly all the time.
The Trail Helps but not Always
I still feel loss every day. I know there is a big void in my life that no amount of walking will ever fill. It will only get better, remember? When this awareness becomes prominent I hit a low spot. Sometimes it’s predictable. I’ve spent a lot of time with Paul. He dutifully calls his wife in Ireland, multiple times a day sometimes, as signals permit. This is good; sometimes I even talk to her. But it also reminds me I’m alone and can’t make such a call (prayers aside).
I’ve also been hiking with a married couple lately. They are great, fun people. I sometimes just enjoy watching them interact, good-natured bantering, and even egg them on a bit. Once in a while it hits me that I’m enjoying it because I miss it. These are good things and I don’t want them to stop or feel they can’t be normal in front of me.
Other times something or some memory just hits me wrong. That’s the unpredictable stimulus. Predictable or not the feelings pass. I don’t really fight them anymore. I just acknowledge the thoughts. I sometimes quiet down, excuse myself from a conversation, or separate myself a bit on the trail. If any of my tramily reads this just be yourselves. I don’t mind talking about it, either. I just try to not draw attention to myself at these times.
No Miracle Cure but I Love This Hike
Obviously, this was a difficult topic to fully capture into the right words and tone. I don’t mind sharing my experience; I find it cathartic. If I help one other person, on or off trail, that’s even better. For me, I’ll just repeat what I’ve already stated. I’m better in mind, body, and spirit for undertaking this adventure.
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