Originally from the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, I thru-hiked the PCT southbound in 2019 after graduating from college. I’ve been intoxicated with long trails and the individuals that traverse them ever since. I am currently blogging a retrospective series about my 2020 Colorado Trail thru-hike turned dirtbag fairytale. In an effort to give back to this community and to sustain my thru-hiking fixation, I’ve built trails and worked as a wildland firefighter. You can read more by me at IsabellaZenadiah.wordpress.com
Lights and shadows. Inspiration comes, sometimes unbidden and other times because it's been chemically induced. Then it goes, as predictable and rhythmic as the tide going out. Or the arrival of absence in the shadow of the new moon. We couldn’t stay in that moment indefinitely. In fact, it was already beginning to expire. The sun was going down, our hunger mounting, and the neurotransmitters in our brains were already tipping back toward their natural balance. Our hike was coming to its conclusion.
My spirit felt uneasy. The dissonance between my own aggravation and my idyllic surroundings seemed to compound my sense of alienation. I reminded myself that emotional troughs usually follow psychedelic experiences. Analogously, “post-trail depression” often follows the completion of a long journey and the finish line grew closer with every mile I walked. I felt all that I would face at the end of my hike looming like dark clouds on the horizon of my mind.
We stared at each other for an indefinite stretch of time, until finally, he turned toward the lake, and plunged into the water with a couple of powerful paces. I sat there, watching the moose bathe and swim together. I watched as the sinking sun set the mountain tops ablaze before shrinking behind a stone outcropping. The waning crescent moon followed, arching over the rocky abode of the lakes and all the creatures that dwelt there. I waited patiently as the blue veil above turned lilac, then violet, thinning until it revealed the stars. They twinkled vigorously, pleased to be released from where they glint and gleam all day in secret.
I was poised at the edge of sleep but awake enough to discern the songs of winged insects when another sound came into my consciousness. The rasp of labored breathing, at first barely audible, gave way to the ragged gasps of respiratory distress. My senses sharpened, eyes snapping open, and I realized the noise was Matt struggling to draw breath as he lay beside me.
There was something magnificent about that storm. Although I was drenched and battered by hail, internally I felt balanced and sturdy. The past 48 hours had been a series of knocks and shocks, but I had managed to absorb them with grace and gratitude. One of the miraculous elements of thru-hiking, I suppose, is learning that you’re capable of so much more than you had imagined. The irony of this, in my own case, is that those revelations were not always admirable. I had learned a great deal about my own capacity for avoidance, duplicity, and selfishness.
I lay in the dark feeling mad with the urge to crawl out of my own skin. Throughout the night, my limbs would spasm and jolt with unbearable itches. The itches were accompanied by intense contractions in my muscles and I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen. Once, I bolted upright and awoke to the sound of my own hyperventilations. Whenever I would stir like that, Matt would soothe me by telling me that I was okay. Eventually the drugs lulled me into unconsciousness and I found relief.
Backpacking is gratifying, intensely introspective, and demanding on many different levels. It is relieving to counterbalance that mode of being with moments of playfulness or outright hedonism. To live, however briefly, among the wild things in rugged places outside society’s purview can provide a tremendous release. To escape the pressures of your own performance, others’ preconceptions, and encounter a new version of yourself.
God speaks to each of us as (s)he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear: You, sent out beyond
I used to feel awkward in this position; thumb out, hip cocked, chin up with a wide smile for passing drivers. Embarrassed and personally wounded by each rejection as cars sped past me.
One moment, I was trying to decide which protein bars I wanted and what to pack for dinner, the next I was on the floor trying to fight against a singular, all-consuming feeling of angst. A feeling that I genuinely feared had the immutable power to snuff out my very existence.