Finding “Home” After the Appalachian Trail

There are a couple of well-known sayings about the concept of home. Most often, people will tell you that “home is where the heart is.” Hikers are particularly fond of “home is where I hang my food at night.” But every now and then, regarding home, you get that ominous warning that “you can never go back.”

Why these (seemingly) opposing views about home, and what is home anyway?

By this time, this year’s class of hikers is rolling through Harper’s Ferry and sending half-way post cards to friends and family. They are testing their lactose tolerance with the Half Gallon Challenge, and burning through the blazing, waterless wasteland that is Pennsylvania. They are catching their first glimpse of the Big Apple, perhaps taking a side trip into the city. They are cruising through the deli-tour miles of New York and New Jersey, where it’s possible to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner in three different towns.

No matter where they are, though, by this point in their hike, they are home. The trail is no longer foreign and wild. Actually, it is, but now they are untamed and wild, too. The trail hasn’t changed, but the hikers have, and this is their world now. This is where they belong.

Eureka Spitfire

Home sweet home. Best $100 I’ve ever spent.

Is that what home is? A place where you fit. A place to belong?

I climbed down from Katahdin’s brutally majestic peak exactly eight months ago.  Not surprisingly, I spent that night crying in the hostel in Millinocket, because I was not prepared for the end. I missed my family and my friends, sure, but as I watched hikers speed off to Portland or Bangor to catch buses and flights home, I wrestled with a very real, very confusing problem: where do I go from here?

I left for the trail from Knoxville, TN where my best friends live, and where I met up with another girl that I started the hike with. Before that, though, I was working as a residential counselor in North Carolina. But my “home” was in Nashville, where I was living with my sister and her family. My parents live in Ohio, and my twin lives in Kentucky. The man I finished the trail with, and was quickly falling for, lived in Virginia…and I didn’t know where I belonged.

I had no job and no home to return to. My home was the trail, and now that had ended.

After landing at my parents’ place in Ohio for a few months of post-trail rehabilitation and joblessness, I ended up back in Nashville, employed and surrounded by my closest friends. I am less than a day’s drive from Hot Springs, The Smokies, and Amicalola Falls. Tennessee definitely feels like home. It is where my heart is…but I still want to go back. Every day I miss the trail, and I try to find the time, the excuse, the money to go back any chance I get.

Miss Janet told us of hikers who repeatedly returned to the trail, hoping to find the same thing they felt and experienced on their first pilgrimage into the woods. “It’s not the same,” she warned. “It’s never the same trail twice, and you aren’t the same hiker that you were the last time you were here.”

I went back to the trail this year. I was on spring break from school, and it was almost exactly one year from the start of my thru hike. I went down to Georgia to trail magic this year’s class and section hike from Dicks Creek Gap to Franklin, NC. I met up with old friends like Mama Goose and Miss Janet, and met new ones, including this year’s Warrior Hikers. I camped and hiked in the snow for the first time, and I had my dog with me, which was also a new experience. I hiked 21 miles on my second day back on the trail, surprising no one more than myself. I stayed in hostels and snuck my dog into a hotel (do as I say, not as I do! Follow the rules, kids). I lived the trail life for a few more days. I remembered who I am when I am Invictus, and I’m still trying to figure out how she fits into who I am as Caitlyn.

Miss Janet is right, you know, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t go back. You can’t go back to who you were and how the trail was, but do go back. Go back to the trail, to the woods, and see it through your already-thru-hiked eyes. See it through the eyes of a weekend hiker, who has to relish every moment on the trail, because this weekend is all she gets until next time…whenever that may be.

The experience will be different. You will be different. But it’s still the trail, and it is still home.

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