Life After White Blazes: My Worst Breakup
I am not being hyperbolic in any way when I say that I thought post-trail depression was mostly hyperbole. I knew, in that logical way we all do, that going back to the doldrums of the real world wouldn’t be fun after spending a summer having the times of our lives, but I didn’t really jump on the depression train. That was giving a couple thousand miles a little too much credit. I’d been through personal crises, I didn’t see how something so beautiful and poignant could possibly bring me pain (beyond the pain in my feet and ankles and knees and back and shoulders and the constant ache in my stomach, but that’s totally different). There are many things about the trail that I took to be true, that most often proved just rumor. Pennsylvania is rocky, sure, but it’s only like 10 percent rockier than the rest of the trail. Did you guys not remember all the rocks in Virginia or the fact that the trail gets progressively rockier until New Hampshire is piles of rocks and Maine is just one big fucking rock? Virginia’s ridgeline jumping is the exact opposite of flat. Uber is most certainly an acceptable form of transport and it somehow managed to exist at almost every road crossing I reached about three hours too late for an easy hitch. And though there was certainly pain, I made it to Maine by opting to never deliberately hike in the rain. I guess, in the face of all of that, it makes sense that I underestimated the post-trail blues.
I had wanderlust for home. Somewhere in New Jersey, the feeling hit me and stuck with me for the rest of my hike. I don’t mean I was homesick, not at all (I was a college freshman once, after all). No, I just daydreamed about being home, about the tiny romantic details of a town I hated as a once-teenager. I fantasized about driving down the back roads I knew so well, the little center store, the police station-library-town hall-fire department all in one building. I wasn’t ready to go home, nor was I really missing it, but I couldn’t see how being home could be bad.
I also have to admit that I was a Trail Grinch™. I went into my hike and through most of my hike not believing that my hike would change me one bit. I needed a break from my life after college, and I had dreamed of this accomplishment for a superb number of years, and that’s what the hike was to me and all it seemed to be: an adventure and a half. The hippies who claimed they would be different people by the end of the hike, that they’d gone out there to find themselves among the trees, that they’d learn something dramatic about themselves were blowing smoke (figuratively, but also probably literally).
And then I fell head over heels in love with the Appalachian Trail.
A thru-hike really is like a relationship, where you work at it and fight and make up and forgive and pretend to forget but bring up the shitty things over and over again when you know you shouldn’t. We entered into our relationship knowing it had an expiration date somewhere at the summit of Katahdin. A relationship is rarely about getting married and living happily ever after, but about what you learn about yourself and what you want and need along the way. Both of us were in it for the experience, and the trail had a whole hell of a lot to teach me. As our finish line on Katahdin approached, I was already mourning the relationship. I’d fallen deeper and harder for her than I had ever expected to, and despite spending the last 500 miles griping about how far away the end was and fighting tooth and nail with the trail to just have it be over with, I suddenly couldn’t imagine walking off that summit and leaving it all behind. If my savings account hadn’t been teetering near “nope” level, I would’ve flip-flopped right there, dragged out the abuse and the screaming and the making-up passion of the trail for at least another 2,190 miles. But we both knew, for now, I had to walk away.
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the post-trail blues entirely, just not in their prevalence and their strength. I saw the breakup coming, I thought I’d compartmentalized my feelings, and I forgot that there has never been a passionate summer romance that hasn’t ended in misery. I took precautions. I took so many precautions to help ease the transition from the trail; I read every post there was about the post-trail blues and their tips for success. I had been asking old thru-hikers since Virginia about how they’d dealt with finishing the trail. I didn’t have a free weekend for a month and a half in this “real life” version of the world I’d stumbled into. The day after I came home, I spent 12 hours at a big state fair, gorging myself on all the different flavors of deep fried joy there are. I scheduled myself for dancing lessons, road trips, and nights out with friends I hadn’t seen in a long time. I gave myself a week to eat junk food and mourn, and then went on a fairly strict diet. I did six- to ten-mile hikes every weekend and any days in between when the weather permitted. Professionally and personally, my off-trail life exploded with good news and good things and I naively thought — ha, I’ve won. And like any good heartbreak you think you’ve beaten, it smacks you in the face at 2 p.m. a couple of weeks after the fact, and you blow your healthy habits with oatmeal peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (and you’ll lie to yourself and say they’re healthy because of the fiber and protein) and maybe a little too much rum.
I am having a hard time even writing about the trail now. I have so many memories that are in absolute technicolor. They are bright and vivid and corporeal. I don’t just remember them, they are not just video reels playing back through my mind. They have not faded in the six months since I walked away from that relationship. My body remembers them. I remember them in my chest and in my legs and feet and in my shoulders. I remember the sun or the mist or the bracing ice in the wind on my skin. I remember the sharp pain in my knees, the dull ache in my swollen feet and the way they pressed to the sides of my shoes on top of whatever memory it was. I remember the way the laughter or the tears felt in my heart. I remember having the breath knocked out of me by the magnificence of a view and I remember having my wits knocked out of me the handful of times I smacked my head on surprisingly low-slung trees.
There is not a single day that has passed since I returned to the real world that I have not been struck by one of these memories. What is worse is the idea that I did not cherish them enough, that somehow, despite pointedly taking my time with my thru-hike, despite allowing myself to sit on the side of the trail and soak up so many incredible places and irreplaceable moments, that I should’ve done more. I don’t know how I could have then, but yesterday I convinced myself that someday I’ll thru-hike it again, soak up a couple more memories, a couple more ounces of the experience. There are plenty of long-empty pints of Ben and Jerry’s that have heard the same lines about an ex-partner.
There were dozens of days on trail that hurt. Physically, mentally, emotionally, I hurt while I was out there. There were plenty of days where she had beaten me so ragged, kept me up so late arguing with her about distances and the rocks and pointless climbs in the way, that I couldn’t manage more than five miles. And so I didn’t. There were plenty of hot, cloudless summer days and even more windy and rainy days just above freezing when I had to remind myself why I was hiking, remind myself of the beauty at the next summit, of the shower and the Dunkin’ Donuts in the next town, of the cheese-covered dinner I’d get to have in a few hours. I deliberately and intentionally had to reframe my point of view, because chanting “fuck this fucking wooded path” over and over again in your head is not conducive to happy hiking, and would’ve never gotten me to Maine. I had to be forgiving to myself and to the trail if I wanted our relationship to last as long as it could.
As the one-year anniversary of my start date draws closer, I am desperately missing the trail and the long fights and the days she made up for it with sunshine and beautiful lakes and quiet mornings. I want so goddamn badly to set my feet on Springer, relive that excitement and unsurety and freedom for six more months, or to join those I hiked with who are setting out on the PCT this year, and start a whole new wild relationship full of the same bad (and delightful) choices (the PCT definitely rides a motorcycle). I have definitely never missed an ex like I miss the trail and its wild tendencies.
There are many people who choose a life conducive to hiking after their relationship with the trail comes to an end — they decide to pick up and move for the love of their life, refuse to accept the finality in the expiration date the trail gave them on Katahdin. Unfortunately, my second passion stands at odds with my love of hiking, and keeps me indoors under fluorescent lights in loud, sterile laboratories. I have been struggling to come to terms with this, with the reality that constant hiking would keep me from following this other dream of mine. I absolutely adore my new job and my coworkers who buoy me and want to see me succeed as much as I do, but there is a not-so-quiet voice that reminds me I could quit tomorrow and leave for the AT or the PCT or the CDT or anywhere with a half-defined path meant for months of walking.
So like those hot days, or those rainy days, or those days when my legs were simply done, I remind myself of how I dreamed of the everyday while I was on trail, of the simple things like showers and fresh meat and vegetables and local beers and lipstick and sweatshirts and long drives, and how I would miss what I have now just as I miss the trail. I remind myself of the excitement in the progress of my career; every step toward new, exciting data or a published paper or a graduate school acceptance is a state border, another hundred miles. I remind myself, too, that I will be attempting other long trails and using my vacation days to revisit the 100-Mile Wilderness soon and to set up trail magic for this year’s class, and that I will do the PCT in 2019 or 2020. That I am still young and have only broken myself a few times and that there are many miles left in these legs. If Greybeard was any indicator, I’ve got a minimum of 60 more years to hike the AT again and plenty of trails to tackle in between. That the trail has not abandoned me in any way. And on the days when I decide I cannot go more than five miles, I still happily set up my (now figurative) tent and read in the afternoon light.
To those 2018ers and future thru-hikers, you should soak up every single second, and know too that you’ll finish feeling like you didn’t get enough. Take millions and millions of photos and videos. I know you’ve never once looked back all that fondly on the ugly pictures in old albums, but I have scrolled back through these photos on every crummy day I’ve had, and am so thankful for the silly Snapchat videos and the hundreds of photos I have of my feet. Write something down every day, even if it’s just two sentences about where you came from and where you ended. Be prepared to be changed, maybe not into a whole new person but into someone smarter and stronger than you were when you left from Springer and into someone with new mends and new cracks in their heart. And be prepared with the Ben and Jerry’s and excessive reading of trail blogs and the tears and the pain of your loss when you come home because you, like me, couldn’t afford to flip-flop.
I carry the trail with me everywhere I go. There are a lot of things that are hard to stomach at first about this “real world” version of life, that I’ve seen lamented on Facebook pages and blogs about coming off the trail. There is also a lot of beauty in the nooks and crannies that the old me had overlooked or grown bitter about that stand out almost as vividly to me as my memories of the trail do. I will enjoy this “new me,” who was healed by the trail and broken by the trail and taught a lot by the trail, and who tears up now when I see strangers be kind to each other and who knows better now how to reframe and push on, and I will let new me do good in the world and bring her lessons learned about humility and perseverance and self-care and optimism to other people and other trails. Like any good breakup survivor.
But for fuck’s sake, I’d really love to stop craving rice sides calorie-loaded with butter and a quarter pound of cheese.
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