On Being Lost
I hiked the AT until the money ran out (640 miles and some good long months) and I’ve been struggling for a long time to write publicly about my experiences on it. Specific stories will come later, but this piece has been begging me to write it ever since I got back.
I cannot provide you definitive answers about the trail or about the world around the trail. Certainly we can chat about what kind of gear I used or how I found places to sleep every night or what I ate. But the answers for which you look, and the answers that you wanted me to find, should not, and also probably cannot, be found.
Closure. It would be easier for many people if I had just come back and proclaimed “I’m healed.” It’s easier for them if they don’t have to think about it anymore. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the trail or trauma works, at least for me. The trail helped me clear some of the clouds in my head. It took the edge off my depression. But it did not “cure” me. I don’t know if it will happen, but I can guarantee that the chances are extremely slim. I will most likely be battling my trauma every day. The fact that I won’t be the same is both good and bad. It is what it is.
I would like to note that the desire for my closure is closely linked to the idea that I needed to restore my sanity because my psychological response was overly sensitive and an overreaction. I just became one of those historically “hysterical” women. At a certain point, not of my choosing, I am supposed to cease having emotions about my experiences with sexual violence. Anything beyond that, or at a level beyond what is deemed warranted, is irrational, not sane, and cannot be understood or supported.
A return to “real life.” After the trail I was supposed to come back to Tufts, shut my mouth, and do my homework like a good little girl. I was supposed to have my fun and return to this institutional machine without a fuss. Of course this request gravely misunderstands what the trail constitutes, and what actually matters. The trail both is and isn’t “real life.” Hiking everywhere every day certainly isn’t what most of us are doing. However, the trail does compose a microcosm of society; it is derived from society. Moreover, this answer assumes that the trail was not the better, more valuable way to live. For me, in many respects, it was.
But this all really boils down to a call for complacency, with my experiences as a survivor, and as an extension, the consistently fucked up world around me. But that’s not how my mother put it. She wanted me to be happy, but by that she really meant she wanted me to forget my anger and my sense of injustice. She wanted a fairy with a magic wand to wave away my resistance. As I said, the trail definitively did not give me any of these things. Conversely, it fed my insatiable restlessness and endless discontent with the way things are. And this is the really important thing; this is the point: the trail left me lost. Many of the people around me want me found; they want to welcome the stray sheep back into the fold. But the problem is that I don’t want to be found.
As human beings we love to rigidly categorize, label, and define each other and our surroundings. It follows that we want to know who is “in” and who is “out.” It follows that institutions, governments, and states adhere to these principles to gain power and to subsequently control constituents. We buy into this for many reasons, including fear, power, and the need to survive. The trail can provide some perspective and respite. After all, I embarked on an arduous journey alone, I was almost completely reliant on myself, and I learned to truly value my health and my body. I did not have unnecessary obligations or allegiances. I was freer than I have ever been.
Yes indeed, I was lost. I knew that when I was done hiking that I would have trouble returning home. What I valued had changed. I absolutely had no faith or interest in academia anymore. Essays weren’t going to be my salvation. Material goods were overwhelming and often unnecessary. College parties were boring and redundant. I hated suburbia even more. Capitalism in all its forms became much more evident. My wanderlust was formidable. These were not the answers people wanted. In fact, these are not answers, they are questions.
My experience on the trail reaffirmed to me that it is ok to think that the way things are is not the way things should be. It’s ok to feel angry and sad about this. It’s ok to want to change this.
Let me be lost forever.
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I would argue that you cant really know yourself until you’re lost, in the broadest sense.
Nice article, from a 2016 NOBO with no money and emotional trauma, I know how hard it is to fit into a group of people who cant get it.
Olivia, this was a difficult post to write. It is challenging enough to read through, that I imagine many will not. I was tempted to just stop, but mainly because I face many of the survivor challenges that you do.
But I persevered and finished your post, if for no other reason than to honor your struggle. The concept of “being Lost” is a difficult one for those of us who find society’s pressures overwhelming sometimes. In fact, I prefer being lost in Nature to being lost in society every day of the week. When we truly are dependent solely on our own resources for meeting our basic needs, we discover that being Lost in nature can be more affirming, more peaceful, even safer, than being where others believe we must be, in society.
I hope you will continue in your search for safety and peace. Whether you find it in nature or in the “real world community”, know that you deserve it as much as any other person – or hiker!
I am so glad to have seen and read this, Olivia. The title misled me and I almost didn’t!
It was beautifully honest, and honestly beautiful, and it will stay with me. For many reasons. By the way, I have a feeling you are articulating what many of us cannot, and it is admired and appreciated. You and your story are valuable and I hope you allow yourself to feel that value too.