Life After the Trail
How am I doing?
I’ll tell you, life is hard on the other side.
Unfortunately, it’s not 40-mile-an-hour-wind, pelting rain, climbing-up-the-side-of-a-mountain hard. It’s not hungry-with-two-days-to-the-next-resupply hard.
It’s a considerably more difficult climb over here.
It’s taking all the skills and habits I learned on my Thru-hike attempt to help me re-acclimate after having to leave the trail just shy of 700 miles.
I’m not the same person I was when I left. I don’t feel like “Beth” anymore. My closet houses clothes that look. . .wrong. I recognize they’re mine, but I don’t know how to wear them anymore. Honestly, I don’t even remember which ones were my favorites.
A black Smartwool dress I found squished against the wall of the closet fits the new body I came home with, and I wear it endlessly because it seems wasteful and overwhelming to wear a new set of clothes each day.
I expect to run into Shadow, Garmin, Coach, AJ, or Jolly Rancher every time I go anywhere.
My house feels foreign, too.
I raised a family in this house for 25 years. Three whole humans grew to adulthood under this roof, and I know that’s true. The memories are all still here, but the house and my car. . .they fit me no better than the clothes I found hanging in my wardrobe.
An unsettling feeling, this.
On the trail, hikers face challenges every day—sometimes all day, every day. And we problem-solve.
On the trail, I learned the best practices were
- Taking problems as they came
- Studying the problem and using what was at hand to solve it
- Recognizing what I needed and asking for help when necessary
- Giving myself a break
- Taking things one step at a time
- Not comparing myself to anyone or trying to keep up with anyone else
- Trusting that it will work out
- Believing something even more beautiful was further up the trail
- Understanding that eventually the view would be worth the climb
- Knowing that healing comes from solitude, parasympathetic responses, and tough emotional work
Turns out, these Trail Truths apply in real life, too.
So I used what the trail taught me, and I problem-solved! How do I adjust to my old life without regressing back to the old me?
First, I decided to treat my house like a hostel until I can mold it to better fit the new me.
I moved most of my dishes to one side, so when I open the most convenient cabinet in the kitchen, I see just one cup, one coffee mug, one plate, and one bowl, and I wash them and put them back every night.
Breakfast is still one package of oatmeal or a protein shake, and lunch and dinner are still cold-soaked Huel meals.
My Smart Water bottle goes everywhere with me—still filled with Liquid IV.
I sleep under my ultralight quilt and use my clothing-filled dry bag as a pillow.
When I’m down, I listen to my AT hiking playlist, and it brings me back.
Hot showers are still treated like a luxury.
I walk or exercise as best I can every day.
I look at each day as a preparation for the next.
To make me feel less overwhelmed with the number of distraction out here, I wrote some new routines on the wall chalkboards in my dining room and kitchen.
Right now I’m something in between the person I was when I started the trail and the person I was becoming on my hike.
I’m Demi-Beth. 😃
687 miles is nothing to sneeze at, but it eats at me to have left without accomplishing my goal.
Fewer than half of those who attempt it make it that far. So I guess I’m. . .above average?
Though I knew leaving the trail was the right choice, I still came home feeling like a disappointing failure. Like a total loser. I wasn’t going home on my own terms. I didn’t accomplish my goal. Ugh! I didn’t even make it to the half-way mark.
I know my friends and family (and followers) tell me they’re proud of me, but I can’t help thinking they’re disappointed I didn’t finish.
To be clear, I don’t think they feel like I, personally, disappointed them, but that they’re disappointed in general the goal wasn’t accomplished. You know, like when your favorite team loses the big game.
I know I am.
Disappointed, that is.
But I’m not disappointed in myself anymore. I’ve had some time to process the close of my adventure.
I’m disappointed it didn’t end differently, and that I can’t live on the trail the rest of my life. I miss Trail Magic and Ridge Runners and Safety Meetings. I miss my fellow hikers. No one calls me Tree Hugger here, and that bums me out and feels wrong. I miss greeting strangers like family, and being every person’s “sister.”
Plus, my back hurts. . .
But I know I left it all on the mountain.
In November of 2018, I couldn’t walk unassisted. I couldn’t make sense of words on a page. I couldn’t leave the couch some days, and I struggled to retrieve words (from a brain that had studied nothing but words most of its life). I stuttered. Still do, though much less often now.
And yet, I gave it a shot.
I went all-in, and I would do it again tomorrow.
I know I did everything I could. I put myself into debt. I climbed and hiked with a fractured spine and a torn back muscle. I missed important life events in my family’s lives. I climbed with an unhealed rotator cuff and patelar tendon tear. I hiked and camped through snowstorms and thunderstorms and near-zero visibility.
And I kept going.
I kept going until my body wouldn’t let me anymore.
And that feels AMAZING.
More importantly, I walked through decades of unresolved issues.
Walking the AT was never about getting from Point A to Point B. It was about proving to myself I was still capable of doing hard things. To for once, just once, accomplish something difficult that I chose for myself, instead of just surviving circumstances beyond my control. To practice what I preach and live out a dream.
It turned out to be so much more, including a pilgrimage to face my demons. I was Frodo Baggins on his way to Mordor. 😃
At the outset of the hike, I didn’t know exactly how it would happen, but I knew healing would be a by-product of the hike.
I was right, too. I “silk blazed” my past.
These are not events that sit with me daily. In fact, I rarely acknowledge their existence. The memories don’t interfere with my daily life.
But everything is fair game when you’re walking 12 hours a day in the woods. Your mind just goes, and it goes wherever it wants to.
The Trail provides.
I don’t know how it happens for other people, but for me, my past self was just there one morning. Like those silky cobwebs across the trail. You never see them coming, and there’s no avoiding them. And brother, they. are. sticky.
“Little me” just showed up one morning in my head and started looking around at this magical place I was in.
And then I tried a mental exercise.
Hiking is nothing but walking and thinking, and we’re always coming up with new things to think about. But what would happen if I didn’t try to direct my thoughts? I mean, you can only sing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” so many times, and by day seven, I’d worn out the Punch Brothers’ “Another New World”. So I decided to go with it. I took whatever popped in my head and chewed on it.
Some days I would imagine my kids and my grandkids and what they might be doing. I’d see them in my mind and just feel the ache of missing them.
So I thought, here’s a way to look at my life and reframe certain events in a safe place, and in a healthy, objective way. I’ll imagine what my younger self would think of this trip as I walk along.
And so, my childhood self walked beside me from the beginning; all through Georgia and North Carolina. First as an uninvited companion, but then as an innocent set of eyes through which to view the forest.
I got to see the adventure as I would have before life intervened and stole the magic.
I got to feel like the hero in all those books I read as a kid.
I got to let all the adult constraints go and just be a kid again.
As I walked along, I worked through some not-so-pleasant memories—revisited some tough emotions, and I helped “little me” understand that the situations she went through were outside of her control, and that she did the very best she could. That all of her feelings were valid.
It might sounds silly. Hell, right now, sitting in my house, freshly showered, holding my hot coffee, it’s difficult to conjure the same thoughts and images I could out there.
But if you’re a backpacker, you know what I mean. Anyway, it worked for me, though some days were difficult.
I reminded her she grew up strong. Strong enough to climb these magnificent mountains, and to hug all of these trees with reckless abandon. To overcome, in an amazing way, some seemingly impossible obstacles.
She became indomitable.
Little Beth aged as I walked on through Tennessee and Virginia, and as we walked and climbed, we took breaks, rested, and sometimes just sat down and cried when we needed to—something she’d not done enough of.
In between the breathtaking vistas, gurgling water sources, and sunny meadows, I walked myself through life experiences that had haunted my adolescence and young adulthood, and I helped that kid see those events (and herself) through my seasoned gaze.
Along the way, I assured her she had coped with her situation the best she could, did what she needed to do to survive and meet her needs, and was lucky to find good people who helped her along the way.
I guess I took “gentle parenting” to a weird place.
It was like my own, oddly personal Doctor Who episode. Like I was going back in time to sit with this scared little kid while she was experiencing these things.
Hey—whatever works, right?
My functional neurologist will tell you, unresolved trauma shows up as pain in the body, so I resolved it. Why not? I mean, what else did I have to do? I’m walking with nothing but time and a backpack, here.
We worked it all out, she and I.
The trees in the forest are the best examples of survival techniques. They spread their roots out in search of nutrients and water. When the roots encounter an obstacle or if they don’t find what they seek, the tree tries a different way, and sends out the roots in another direction until they reach what they need.
That’s what she had done throughout her life: tried different approaches until something worked.
When my hike abruptly ended, I had worked through much of my life from the age of 4 or so through the age of 21.
I think it was at least enough to convince little Beth that she has, in fact, survived.
So now she can stop living in survival mode.
I did my best to be worthy of the gift—the privilege—of walking this sacred trail.
I did the hard work.
And I left it all on the mountain.
Now I’m home.
So, how am I doing?
I’m struggling to do this—but I have to call it. I have close the chapter because I no longer have time enough to finish the remaining 1500 miles and have it still count as a Thru-hike.
I’ve done the math.
My 2022 AT Thru-hike is over.
And this is how it ended: 1,5 miles from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, with 1500 miles left unhiked.
Am I sad that I didn’t finish 2,200 miles? Or am I grateful for the time I had, the help I found, the changes I went through, the support I felt, and the friends I made?
It’s less of a question to answer, really, than just a choice to make.
I choose gratitude and pride.
Yes. The disappointment of injuring myself and not summiting Mama K is real, but when asked, “How you doin today?” I will choose the response Tree Hugger gave to that question every single day on the trail:
“Today is the best day of my life.”
Happy Trails, everyone. Tree Hugger is out.
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